Collaboration is Key- I took on way more in the beginning than I should have been doing on my own. I know now that collaboration is a core value for me, both personally and professionally, and I believe that it has proven to be my biggest source of inspiration and success. Over the years, our collaborative network of school districts, military installations, community organizations, and funding partners are in place creating a blueprint strengthening our ability to provide the best care for our military youth as we continue to grow.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelcey Liverpool.
Kelcey is the Founder and Executive Director of Kids Rank, established in 2012 as a nonprofit organization designed specifically to support the social and emotional well-being of military and veteran children. She developed this hands-on program to teach and encourage the numerous strengths of military children. In November 2019, Kelcey was selected as a Summit Fellow, a program that seeks to connect impact-driven leaders within the Summit community to affect positive change in the world and broaden their reach. Kelcey is the mother of 2 teenaged military daughters.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was a military spouse for 17 years and what I realized is that my kids needed a place to belong. I have two, now teenage girls and like many military families we have lived all over, and they have had to continuously adjust to living in a new place, their dad being gone either on a ship or just working crazy long hours, not living near family and most recently our divorce (marriage can be such a difficult thing especially in this military lifestyle). When my girls were in kindergarten and 2nd grade, they ended up in 3 different schools as we transitioned from Japan to Illinois! I started Kids Rank as a way to give them a place they could connect with other kids who understood.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There have been so many interesting stories that come to mind, but one of the most recent ones is our Masks of Hope: WE ARE RESILIENCE exhibit with are amazing partners at the National Veterans Art Museum. It has been one of the most successful and inspiring projects to date in Kids Rank’s 8-year history. It really combines my background in art, both my parents are fine artists, with my current world as a military youth nonprofit leader.
The WE ARE RESILIENCE project launched in early 2020 with our Kids Rank partner schools and community organizations in the Chicagoland area. We were preparing for our 6th Annual Kids Rank Ball in celebration of the Month of the Military Child and our theme was set to be a masquerade ball.
At the time, Kids Rank began more intentionally exploring the social and emotional health of military children and we knew, based on research, that art is one of those vehicles that allow people to express their emotions in a safe space. Talking through decorations with the ball committee, I was reminded of an art therapy mask-making project with veterans through the Veterans Affairs and thought a version created by the current Kids Rank Pride Members would be a striking art project for the guests at the ball to experience.
The project began as a 4-week workshop, created by Moki the education director from NVAM, for Kids Rank’s Pride members to learn more about color and design, express themselves by creating a mask, and write reflections about their artwork. However, when the nation shut down into March 2020, it took on a whole new meaning. U.S. Military personnel were deemed — and still are — essential workers through all times, so there were increased levels of anxiety within these military family units. Over the next several months, as restrictions were slightly lifted, masks in various stages of completion were collected from schools and community locations where programming had been so immediately halted.
The young artists’ messages were the most powerful, raw, and honest reflections into life as a military child, especially throughout a worldwide pandemic. While some expressed elements of negativity in such writing as “my mask represents my loneliness” or even expressions of fear, the overwhelming presence of hope and resilience compels the project to continue. These amazing kids were able to achieve feelings of resilience through the project, the most pleasant surprise for us. The mask project proved to be such a beautiful example of finding hope through the darkness.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I am a big picture thinker and for me, the funniest mistake I made, in the beginning, was around scaling the organization. I swore that in one year we were going to see Kids Rank Pride groups all over the country serving military kids in multiple states. Not coming from a nonprofit background, I was setting myself up for a rude awakening! Now in our 9th year, our core is still in Illinois with a handful of states piloting our virtual model because of COVID. My big lesson learned is in the time and patience it takes to build a quality organization. Over the years I have had amazing mentors, made plenty of mistakes, dedicated volunteers, and now a fantastic team who have all believed in the mission and we are finally at a point where are having real conversations about expansion.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Military-connected youth are found in every zip code across the United States and in many countries around the world. Oftentimes, policy and initiative focus take shape around the service person or the spouse, the perspective and impact of the military child are largely missing. Military families are immersed in our civilian communities yet there is a large disconnect between the communities and families. Roughly 70 percent of military families do not live on a base and approximately 80 percent of the children attend public school. An active-duty child averages 6–8 schools within their K-12 education career and moves roughly every two to three years. Transitions equal new environments, new schools, new care providers, and not enough if any communication between them within the community let alone from old to new.
Kids Rank is a 501c(3) service-based organization developed specifically for military children to support their social and emotional well-being. The cornerstone of our organization is our direct service programming, the formation of local clubs, called Prides, engaging children in hands-on, skill-building projects and volunteer opportunities designed to encourage resilience through our core pillars of CONNECT, LEAD and SERVE. We want our military children to serve their communities just as their parents serve (or have served) our country.
In October 2020, we launched a series call Foundations, a Conversation on Military Youth Mental Health and Well-Being. Even before the global pandemic, many military youths have found themselves in situations that have caused feelings of isolation, anxiety, and many other factors that have created added stress to their mental health and well-being. I wanted us to be a part of a system that is proactive in our offering of support to mitigate the potential negative impact that growing up in a military family can present.
Through Foundations, as part of monthly hour-long sessions on different topic areas, we get to explore the landscape of who and what services are available for our military children in providing reliable resources. In addition, because of the participation of families and providers, we are continuing to learn where there are gaps in services. The collaborative process of work that I developed in the years before the Foundations Conversations has now begun to click together to form a beautiful tapestry of collective support.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Our program was born out of the idea of human connection. We want the kids to be connected to their communities and also their fellow Pride Members. A couple of years ago, we had a young man in our program, about 12 years old, who struggled with social and emotional challenges and easily broke out into tears when upset, angry, or frustrated. He did not always feel like he fit in and had a hard time making friends. On a bus leaving field trip, he was lightly tapped with a balloon by a boy he did not know, it triggered him which brought on some teasing from the other boy. He began to cry out of frustration and before I could stand up to address the issue two of his fellow Pride Members from his groups stepped up and told the teasing boy “hey! He’s good he just needs to cry it out, let him be!” It completely deescalated the situation with no further action needed.
One of the lines in our Kids Rank Creed says, “Trust and support your fellow club members.” To me, the safety and understanding of who he was as a person was really meaningful and I know that this type of environment provided him a sense of belonging.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
More than 50% of our currently serving military are children of veterans which means that a large percentage of our next generation of service members are the children that we are currently serving. We want them to be emotionally well-adjusted, confident, resilient, and compassionate leaders in such an important role that impacts our national security.
To help in that effort suggestions are to:
- Educate civilian community members, teachers, social workers, leaders around military culture and how it impacts the children.
- Put additional resources around program and services that are specifically designed for military-connected children
- Expand research, which is only about 20 years old, on the impact of military life for children of service members.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is having a vision and pushing forward to making it a reality. Within that, there are so many leadership styles and to be successful should be authentic to that individual. I have a passion for designing programs and initiatives that create change. My background includes work within the arts, banking, and nonprofit sectors with the common thread of relationship building and design. I believe, when working in a human service industry, that nothing meaningful is built alone as it takes the strengths and voices from many perspectives to adequately address the needs of others. This is how I approach work and own my role as a creative leader.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Collaboration is Key- I took on way more in the beginning than I should have been doing on my own. I know now that collaboration is a core value for me, both personally and professionally, and I believe that it has proven to be my biggest source of inspiration and success. Over the years, our collaborative network of school districts, military installations, community organizations, and funding partners are in place creating a blueprint strengthening our ability to provide the best care for our military youth as we continue to grow.
- Recognize the power of mentorship- It was not until I started Kids Rank that I started to learn how impactful mentorship can be. The insight from individuals with knowledge in different areas sharing their successes and failures helped me so much in shaping the way I work and how I navigate through the business. Although I run a nonprofit, I have mentors in nonprofit, for-profit businesses, some are more for professional development in different industries and others are for my growth as a leader and also a person. This diversity has had a huge impact as it allows me to think of different approaches to work and life.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself- I want a certain standard for the kids we serve, I develop programs as if I am planning for my own two children. I want programs to be high quality, fun, engaging, and for them to walk away feeling great about the experience. In the past, I sometimes pushed myself and took on more than needed beyond where I should have. I would get frustrated with myself when things did not go as planned, I felt responsible even though I would be the only one who noticed. I had to learn to say no, really become more discriminating in opportunities I was presented with, and recognize the progress made due to my efforts. I needed to begin to celebrate the wins before moving onto the next task.
- Some people are good people but not necessarily good people for the organization- I did finally get this advice but not until after I allowed people to be a part of our organization even when I knew they were not the best fit. I let them linger on, dragging down energy because I liked them as people but not as part of our team. As we are now working on building the culture of Kids Rank and defining our values it is much easier to be clear and direct when individuals do not align with where we are going.
- You keep doing what you are doing and do it well- A year or so after we started, I was faced with some competition that had the potential of swallowing my then-new organization due to its size and network connections. Upset, I had a mentor that told me to focus on my mission and continue to do good work. I am so glad I followed the advice because I am still going strong, and the other organization pivoted and ended up following another area of need.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
You don’t always have to be the person that cures cancer or comes up with a world solution, I think of small actions as having such a powerful impact. I do what I do well for the people that I serve and if someone else in their community does what they do with passion, heart, and purpose, and another person does the same that ripple effect is a game-changer. Again, this does not always have to be in the nonprofit sector it could be a business, a teacher, a health professional; hone in on your talents, and doing them to the best of your ability is meaningful. To me, it is better to stay focused on the things you do best and are very passionate about because otherwise when it gets hard and overwhelming you will lose your motivation to push through.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“And one day she discovered that she was fierce and strong and full of fire and that not even she could hold herself back because her passion burned brighter than her fears.” — Mark Anthony, The Beautiful Truth
I have been on a journey the last year in understanding my leadership style and how I want to authentically lead. There was a lot of fear for me, self-imposed, both in failure and success. I realize that I sometimes place boundaries that are not helpful in me reaching my full potential. This quote is a reminder, like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, that I had what I needed all along and am finally owning it. I am really grateful to all the people who have in the past and currently continue to push me to see the truth.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would say both first ladies, Jill Biden and Michelle Obama. They stood up Joining Forces during the Obama administration to encourage members of the public and the private sector to find ways big and small to support service members, veterans, their families, and their caregivers. There is so much work that needs to be done in the support of military-connected children specifically and there now seems to be a shift in the conversation recognizing as a part of a service member’s family that the kids should not be overlooked. Not to mention that I, like Dr. Biden, am a Philly girl too!
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!