When Kennedy Kulish’s baby brother, Kaeden, was born in 2003 with a hole in his heart, she spent a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms watching other children and their parents come and go.
“I saw a lot of sick children and sad parents,” recalls Kennedy, now 10, of Lancaster, Pa. (pop. 56,348). “I wanted to help them.”
By the time Kaeden’s first birthday rolled around, he had endured three open-heart surgeries, and Kennedy, then 6, wanted to help other seriously ill children like her brother.
“I told my mom that Kaeden really didn’t need any toys, so let’s ask people to give him money for us to give to Penn (Penn State Children’s Hospital) to help other children like him,” Kennedy says.
That was the beginning of Kisses for Kaeden, a fund-raising effort led by Kennedy in honor of her brother, who now is a healthy 4-year-old.
Kennedy and her mom, Cammyjoy, sent out invitations to Kaeden’s first birthday party with requests that guests bring donations instead of gifts. “Back then, I didn’t have a computer, so we made 45 invitations with crayon and markers,” Cammyjoy recalls. “But people came and they gladly donated.”
More than $2,000 was collected. “I took the money to the hospital the very next day. It felt great,” Kennedy recalls. “I asked my friends if they still wanted to help. They did, so we started Kisses for Kaeden.”
Kisses for Kaeden is a “merry band of very young volunteers,” says Kathryn Quinn, director of the United Way of Lancaster County Volunteer Center. Kennedy leads the group of a dozen or so 6- to 12-year-olds, who wear matching yellow smiley-face T-shirts and raise money with lemonade stands, auctions, bake sales and garage sales.
Many people in Lancaster know Kennedy simply as “the fund-raiser girl.” Every month for the last three years, she’s organized and hosted an event to benefit a local or national charity.
Kennedy and her volunteers have raised $38,000 so far for a variety of nonprofit organizations, including the American Heart Association, American Red Cross, Children’s Miracle Network, Muscular Dystrophy Association and United Way.
In addition to raising money, Kennedy collects stuffed animals that are distributed by Lancaster police. “We recently found a small boy wandering the streets alone,” Sgt. Todd Umstead says. “He definitely needed a stuffed animal. Kennedy makes it possible.”
Umstead thinks of Kennedy every time he grabs a teddy bear from a box stocked with huggable creatures at the police station. Kennedy collects stuffed animals for the box every month, and her mom estimates that 1,500 stuffed animals have been donated to the police department through Kennedy’s efforts.
Last year, she received a $1,000 prize from Angel Soft’s Angels in Action program that recognized her philanthropic work. She used the money to buy clothes, books and toys for children at Mom’s House, a home for teenage mothers in Lancaster.
“I’m just a regular kid,” Kennedy says. “I play a lot of sports, dance, cheer, and I love school!” A regular kid, maybe, but one with an enormous heart.
“There are so many people who need things to feel better, or just live and eat,” she says. “I want to help.”