Name: Kathlene Denhard
Job Title: Founder of Kans for Kids and On-Air Personality at Alpha Media Louisville
College Name: University of Indianapolis
Twitter Handle: @KDonDJX
Instagram Handle: @KDonDJX
What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
Kathlene Denhard: But really…is there such thing as a typical day, haha! A normal Kans for Kids day is never typical. We function on a need basis, so whatever a family needs, we provide. We could be feeding a family for an extended period of time, or we could be working with a parent to help them find a job. It just depends on the day! But typical is boring! We welcome “different.”
What is the best part of your job?
KD: The best part about working with Kans for Kids is seeing a family get back on their feet when they felt hopeless. In 2013, we were working with a school in Indianapolis that was known as the school with the highest population of attendees that fell under the “below poverty” category for the city. We were working with 75 families to make sure they had enough food to last them their entire Christmas break—stocked a food pantry, brought in clothing for the parents to “shop” for (everything is free to them) and toys for the parents to have something to give to their kids on Christmas morning. I was introduced to a woman who had recently gone through a divorce, lost her home in a fire and lost her job. She had nothing left. Kans for Kids had enough money left over that we were able to replace her children’s clothing, give her new clothes for interviews, Visa gifts cards for groceries and took over a few of her bills to alleviate some of the stress she was feeling. A few months later, I got a phone call from her. She had found a job, her kids were back in school and she had just bought a home. To this day, I cry every time I think about her family.
What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?
KD: That’s a tough one. I think the biggest mistake I made along the way was waiting so long to get my 501(c)(3). I was so young when I started Kans for Kids. I didn’t really think it was going to blow up to what it is today. Once I realized we were missing out on grant opportunities, it was a no-brainer. The most important thing I’ve learned from this is to have faith. Just because people doubt you doesn’t mean it should stop you. If you’re passionate about it, jump in head first. The worst thing that could happen is you fall on your face. All you have to do is brush yourself off and try again.
What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?
KD: The most surreal moment by far actually happened a few days ago. Kans for Kids was featured in a local magazine, Nfocus Louisville, for their “new faces of philanthropy” edition. A local, new-to-Louisville non-profit happened to see the article and decided to reach out. They have offered to donate several hundred meals to help get us through this year. I may or may not have cried on the phone with a complete stranger because I simply could not form words to thank him. For the longest time, I had felt like I hadn’t made much of an impact on the community we had been involved with for several years until I realized that all the small things that we have done over the last six years have kind of all rolled into a pretty big thing. That was an amazing moment.
What inspired you to found Kans for Kids?
KD: When I was a sophomore in college (19 years old), I was a site director for an after-school program with the YMCA at an elementary school in Indianapolis. This particular school originally had a basket program that fed the families in need during all of their extended breaks. When I started working at this school, the grant for the basket program had ceased to exist.
The day this happened, one of my students came into the classroom with broken sandals on, a tank top, pants that she had outgrown and a light jacket. It was the middle of winter, and in Indy, winters are brutal. They’re bitterly cold and always icy. She came running to me with tears in her eyes. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she was so hungry that it was making her stomach hurt. I asked if she had eaten her lunch or any of her snacks that day. She just looked down, almost as if she was ashamed of herself, and said, “I was saving it for home. Mommy doesn’t come home anymore and daddy never cooks.”
I was heartbroken. I immediately grabbed all the spare snacks we had for the day and told her to put them in her backpack. I asked where her coat was; she said she didn’t have one because her dad didn’t have enough money to get her one. I ran into the closet and gave her my brand new North Face that I had just received for my birthday. It was a little big, but she’d grow into it. When her father came to pick her up, I pulled him aside and asked him to confirm everything that she had told me. My heart sank as soon as he said they hadn’t had a meal in several days. She had been bringing her lunch home for almost a week to share with him. She did this all on her own.
At that point, I knew I had two options. I could either turn a blind eye to this problem, or I could face it head on. I called my parents who lived in Louisville, KY (where I’m from) and asked them if there was a way to get 40 hams to me within a week. That year I was supposed to spend a semester abroad in Ireland. My parents were going to fund all of it. They gave me a choice. They would either pay to send me to Ireland, or they would give me that money to start Kans for Kids. What should have been an incredibly difficult decision was probably the easiest one I’ve ever made.
In our first year, we fed 40 families for two weeks, gave each family a Christmas meal complete with all the sides you typically think of when you think Christmas, created a fully stocked food pantry, established a career program for parents to get free career counseling. We got each of them connected with—free to them—financial advisors and set them up with free GED classes. Fast forward to our sixth year, we’ve fed over 5,000 families, created food pantries that are stocked year-round and have established mentoring programs for both parents and students.
What words of wisdom do you find most valuable?
KD: My favorite quote that has actually become our motto for volunteering is: “You’ve never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” These words have gotten me through so many tough times. I can’t even put into words how much this quote means to me.
What advice would you offer to a 20-something with similar aspirations?
KD: Don’t ever give up. Non-profits are tough to create and keep going. But with the right attitude and the right support system, you’ll never fail. Sometimes it can feel like you’re not accomplishing anything at all. But when you look back and see all the little things that you’ve done along the way, those little things turn into big things.
Also, don’t let people discourage you. There will ALWAYS be someone telling you that you can’t or that it’s just not possible. When that happens, put on those big girl boots and show them that you can and that you did. You’ve got this! Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, smile and do it.