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Tragedy to Triumph
In November of 2015, Detroit-native Kiesha Jackson was living in Ohio when she got the news that would change her life. Her brother, Caleb Jamal Snow, had ended his life at the young age of 22 on November 22, 2015, after struggling for months with depression.
Reeling from his loss, she did what few people could in her position: she channeled her grief into establishing a nonprofit in her brother’s memoriam. She began Caleb’s Kids in 2016 as a grassroots effort designed to reach Detroit youth and connect them with resources to explore, understand, and cope with their mental health.
Kiesha states: “I wanted to make sure that no one—not mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, child— would ever experience the loss of a loved one to depression.”
Driven by a poignant and intensely critical mission, Caleb’s Kids is now a fully fledged non profit with a team of survivors, therapists, and counselors with Kiesha at the helm as full time Executive Director.
"When I started Caleb’s Kids I didn’t expect it to look the way it looks right now,” Kiesha reflects. “As we started to work more and more in the community, we realized how big of an issue the lack of mental health education was and how big of a need it was.”
In January 2017, Kiesha uprooted her life in Ohio—where she’d carved out a rich career in HR at multinational companies—to return to her hometown and dedicate herself fulltime to Caleb’s Kids.
“I wanted to impact the youth in the city of Detroit because that’s where I grew up,” Kiesha said. “[Detroit] is where I was born, where I was raised, where I got my foundation and started to think of the tools that I didn’t have growing up that could’ve been beneficial.”
Returning to her childhood home as an adult, she felt she had the power to respond to the growing need for mental health support for today’s Detroit youth.
“[I’m] able to provide that culturally relevant lens to the youth in the city of Detroit,” Kiesha explains. “I can use my lived experiences of growing up in the inner city to debunk some of the myths that we see in the African American community about mental health: the stigma around suicide, the stigma around getting help, the stigma around talking to someone about your concerns and your issues.”
This is Kiesha’s raison d’etre: educating Detroit youth about mental illness, depression, and anxiety as a very real thing that requires professional support. In practice, this means connecting adolescents with trained healthcare professionals, and emphasizing that they are not weaker for it.
The gentle hum of learning & discomfort
Within six months of her brother’s passing, Kiesha established her first-ever non profit—all without prior non-profit experience.
“The biggest ‘ah ha’ moment coming from that corporate environment to the nonprofit arena is the feeling of building something from the ground up,” Kiesha affirms. “The biggest challenge I’ve had thus far is what I don’t know. As we continue to grow and evolve we think that we have learned it all, we’re at a good level and we can move on, but as soon as we get to that next level there’s a whole new layer of things that we don’t know.”
This is what Kiesha advises students who are serious about creating a nonprofit of their own: embrace the constant learning curve. The farther the reach of the organization, the more complex the issues and solutions become.
“It’s always a state of discomfort,” Kiesha remarks. “And it’s good discomfort, I wouldn’t have it any other way because discomfort comes with growth. Every year just continues to push us and force us to evolve.”
Discomfort is not unique to Caleb’s Kids. Every new business requires constant reevaluation and adjustment, an important trait to keep in mind when considering starting a non-profit, since—according to Kiesha—they are essentially a business.
This brings us to one of Kiesha’s foundational steps for creating a non-profit: develop a business plan with your team.
“You still need a business plan because a nonprofit is still a business,” Kiesha instructs. “You build your team, you come up with your business plan of what you want to accomplish, you go and get funders and money to pay for it, and you go forth and conquer. You have to be profitable if you want to help your community.”
For Kiesha, Caleb’s Kids was her greater calling. She has the chance to utilize the organizational and leadership skills that she developed in her HR roles, but in a setting that has a deep personal value to her.
“I do a lot of strategic work,” Kiesha says. “Meeting with different community members and donors to build relationships, [showing] them what we’re doing, showing them our vision for five years out. Your organization will rely heavily on forming strategic partnerships with other organizations because you can’t do it on your own, it’s impossible.”
Kiesha also dedicates her time focusing on the future of her organization, constantly collaborating with her team to reevaluate the why and how of Caleb’s Kids.
“I always say we’re still in the start up phase,” Kiesha reflects. “Even though we began almost 4 years ago there’s no cruise control, I’m building now like I’ve never built before.”
Practicing what you preach
Depression and anxiety aren’t only illnesses that Kiesha helps kids cope with, they’re also struggles she has faced herself, and is still facing today.
“Sometimes when I feel myself really struggling with anxiety I’ll have to stop myself and say ‘Kiesha, do what you tell your youth to do,’” Kiesha laughs. “‘You’re showing your youth these coping skills, you’re showing your youth how to deal with anxiety, you need to do what you’re telling them to do.’ So it’s this gut check.”
As a mental health care provider Kiesha is hyper aware of the issues she does face, and does her best to work proactively within her schedule. Part of her routine is to dedicate the first hour of her day to exercise, specifically running, to “set the tone” for her day. By getting the oxygen and serotonin flowing through her body, and using the time to disconnect from her cell phone and prioritize herself, she finds that her focus and energy are improved.
“That is my time to disconnect and restore my mental health,” Kiesha says. “It’s hard to take time for yourself when you’re so used to willingly giving your time to other people. But you have to stick with it, because if you aren’t well then how can you be well for other people?”
Now more than ever it’s critical that Kiesha is well for the youth community that relies on her and Caleb’s Kids as this has been a year unlike any other. Compounding their depression and anxiety is the atomization of vulnerable Detroit youth due to coronavirus. Along with missing out on key coming-of-age events, Kiesha explains how the subsequent school closures have forced Detroit youth to remain home for prolonged periods of time, and, at times, with the source of their anxiety and depression. Then there’s also the events of George Floyd and a rising fear among black youth of police encounters.
Despite the seemingly obvious need of the youth population for mental health support, Kiesha has to fight to make her voice heard and get these kids the resources they need. But her love for Caleb and the youth she works with means this isn’t a battle she’s backing down from anytime soon.
“It's a constant fight for a place in the realm of society because it goes back to that stigma, ‘well it's just your mental health, you should be strong, think positive,’” Kiesha emphasizes. “But it's not a matter of thinking positive. As we started doing more work in the community we saw how big of a need [mental health] was. And if we didn't do the work, who would?”
If you’d like to support Kiesha’s efforts by giving of your time or financial contributions, visit Caleb’s Kids online to learn how.