Kaela Redd certainly would have been excused if she decided that 2016 may not be the best year to start a non-profit organization. After all, she was a rising senior in high school with plans to attend medical school one day. There were honors and advanced placement classes, internships, college applications and ACT prep courses to complete.
But on their way home from school, the Chicago native and her friends would often visit Redd’s mom at the nearby Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.
Beatrice Smith-Redd works with the homeless outreach team there, and these afternoon visits — seeing the clients, asking questions — helped bring the issue of homelessness to life for the girls. These afternoon visits made it all the more real: the daily struggle to do things that others take for granted, such as brushing your teeth, or finding a shower, or putting on a fresh set of clothes.
“I think it really appealed to their empathy and their sense of caring,” Smith-Redd said. “And I think once they decided that they were going to do this project, they really knew that they had to follow through, because there were other people depending on them.”
Follow through they did.
In August 2016, Redd and her friends Sandra Ramirez and Ashley Toralva founded KUUMBA, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to community service. “Kuumba” is the Swahili word for creativity, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The term refers to using one’s energies to benefit the community.
Their first project was “Called to Duty,” an initiative to provide “We Care Packages” to homeless Veterans in Chicago.
“I feel it is our duty, even as teens, to be of service to the same men and women who so selflessly sacrificed their lives for us,” Redd wrote on the organization’s website, kuumbachicago.com. “In a sense, we feel that we have been ‘called to duty.’”
In October, the three girls held a fundraising gala at Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School on the west side of Chicago to support their efforts to help homeless Veterans. The community quickly rallied behind them.
Rush Hospital’s Road Home Program donated $2,000. Fellow students volunteered, and staffers from Jesse Brown VAMC and Rush Hospital served as mentors. Members of the community contributed Chicago Bulls basketball tickets, handmade crafts, gift cards, and other items to be raffled and auctioned, raising close to $1,000. At the gala, a fellow student even recited a poem she had written for the occasion.
KUUMBA raised nearly $3,500 to purchase care package items: toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, female care items, deodorant, lip balm, combs, and other essential personal care items. Already, there have been discussions about a second event.
“I was really impressed and surprised by how the whole collaboration came together,” Smith-Redd said. “It met the definition of what Kuumba means, where the community comes together to create a situation where they leave the community better than when they found it.”
- Visit VA’s website to learn about employment initiatives and other programs for Veterans exiting homelessness.
- Refer Veterans who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless to their local VA medical center, where VA staff are ready to assist, or urge them to call 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838).
Lolita D. Cleveland, Kuumba Advisory Board member, is the founder and CEO of Open Hands Outreach Consulting, based in Chicago. Cleveland has 15 years of experience in the nonprofit, small business and humanitarian sectors, augmented by a Master of Arts degree in public administration conferred by Walden University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Grambling State University.