by Julie Lipford

I first heard about TKC five or six years ago through asking about volunteer opportunities for my children at a Family Action Network (FAN) meeting. The ED, Lonnie Stonitsch, gave me the single answer to my question — “The Kindness Connection started by two Wilmette Moms” — and that was it…we moved on to the next topic. I looked up the website and submitted my e-mail and waited for something to happen. I received some newsletters but didn’t really understand how to get involved.

Years later, a friend joined the board, Ali Wenzke, and started having some events that were strongly marketed to our school community. We attended some events at The Rock House and the local Sunrise retirement home and started to get to know some of the board and staff at TKC. As we got move involved, I did some photography for TKC and then later, after discussing my business consulting background, I was asked to be on the board.

When I joined the board I thought that maybe I could use my experience to help out with improving some processes or getting some information into more usable software systems — along with continuing to take photos where helpful. In the end, I didn’t make as much of an impact in the backend processes and systems but I did start showing up and often with my children. I learned that TKC artfully met volunteers where they are and that has been an important nonprofit lesson for me. It is truly a kind and welcoming environment.

As part of the board, working on various projects, and actively participating in our strategy sessions, I found myself looking at the organization more wholly and saw some patterns. The organization was ten to twelve years old at the time and had grown from an idea to a fully functioning board and staff having impact in inspiring tens of thousands of volunteers mostly within schools. TKC was successfully executing the mission to inspire youth to volunteer but was struggling to keep the organizational level volunteers involved, partners engaged, retain access to the right contacts at schools from year to year and to know that funding sources would be sustainable from year to year. At the same time, my original challenge of getting my children involved remained top of mind over the years as I recognized that this must be the case for others who were trying to get more involved and find a place to bring their children to volunteer.

I heard feedback from all areas of the organization in board meetings and strategy sessions and this information seemed to paint a common picture. I believe that anyone who showed up would hear the same challenges across the organization and the solutions seemed to boil down to investing in marketing and or making a place where children could come to volunteer. Most times the topic came up the latter option was ruled out immediately, but I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t see any other way to resolve the operational issues than to open our doors to the public. The board was risk adverse but upon further discussions I learned that the original vision for TKC was to have a place where children and families could come to volunteer!

So we breathed breath into the original idea and it came back to life. We had a committee explore the idea so that we could better understand the risk versus merely avoiding it. We confirmed our mission and realized that it came down to two viable options… a decision to make a pure mail-order nonprofit with classroom kindness kits where much more of our funding went directly to marketing and shipping or creating a public space space where we made our work available to the public. In the end, the vision of creating the public space was settled upon and it rested on the idea that with a public space we would also facilitate giving back classroom kindness kits to schools and groups that we have met along the years who could not pay for our services, even at the lowest price point.

So here we are at this exciting pivotal point. Anyone who wants to come to volunteer with their children will be able to do better than merely signing up for our e-mail list… they will be able to show up and volunteer!! According to their schedule!! Also, although I started working with TKC to introduce my children to volunteering, I now see and am deeply inspired by the opportunity to provide all children with an opportunity to volunteer early. I have seen children with varied level of abilities be the one to volunteer vs. being the recipient and it is powerful and life changing! I also believe that it is more than a soft model of giving children something positive to do. It is a quantitative model where TKC really inspires many to volunteer and when you see the children learn that they too can make a difference, you realize that these tens of thousands of children are really going to change the world.