A true story about Extraordinary Living (Kelli Freeman: Part 2)

Kelli Freeman has done some crazy things in her life… and many of these things were all in her pursuit of an extraordinary life. The following interview will make a whole lot more sense if you go back and read Part 1 of Kelli’s story here.

(All the photos here were taken by my husband and I during a “just for fun” photo session we did for Kelli and her sister… and it was definitely fun!).

Now that you’re caught up, let’s dive right on in!

B: OK, so WHAT?! You made the decision to dedicate your life to helping foster kids and then you gave up your apartment AND quit your job only two weeks later to pursue that dream?! What?!

K: (laughing) yep. I’ve always been the kind of person who dives in head first.

B: OK, but still… how did you do that and make it work?

K: Well I needed time to research and learn about the foster system, and I knew that not having to go to work everyday would help with that! I’m a firm believer in not having debt and I’m a big saver so I had quite a bit to live on and I knew that not having to pay rent every month would help that savings go much further! I did get a mindless part time job that allowed me to still dedicate all my brainpower to thinking about my next step, while making a little bit of money at the same time. I also am very grateful that my search for house sitting jobs paid off quickly and I found one that gave me a place to stay 3 weeks out of every month, and actually provided me with some extra money to live on at the same time. And when the house owner found out why I was doing it she spoiled me a ton, so I was very blessed! (smiling).

B: Yeah, but you never would’ve found that perfect housing situation if you didn’t just sack up your faith and dive in head first, right?

K: Exactly.

B: I LOVE that you just did what you had to do! So did all that pay off?

K: Definitely. I spent all my time learning, networking, and volunteering in the non-profit world of foster kids to find out what the needs were, how I could help, and what areas I was gifted in.

B: Given your history of struggling with major self-confidence issues, did you even believe you were gifted in certain areas at this point in your life?

K: Actually yes. My experience at that first camp was huge and totally changed my view on life, my identity, and my quest for meaning in my life. I was still absolutely terrified, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt this was what I was supposed to do so I knew it would happen even if it ended up being in spite of myself! I really didn’t know everything and I did as much as I could to prepare myself but I still made lots of major mistakes along the way and things I would do differently knowing what I know now. But oh well, pushing forward even through my imperfections is what got it all started!  I spent most of my life trying to figure out what I should do and once I knew, I really knew, so I dove in regardless of whether or not I was “perfect” enough for it.

B: Awesome. So tell me how the next few years went down for you.

K: About a month after that first camp I went to in 2004, the person who is now the co-founder of our non-profit, came to me and said he had an idea for a charity. I agreed to help him at a very minimal amount. We decided we needed to have a place for the 12 year olds who had grown up going to the camp for younger kids and were now too old to keep going. These kids were graduating the program and were completely crushed to find out they had nothing to go to next year, many of them were losing a major source of stability in their lives and they were only 12 years old! So our initial goals were to create two things for them to go to, a summer camp for kids ages 12-15 and a Christmas party for them. Within 3 months of deciding that, we had our first Christmas party and about a year and a half after that (in summer of 2006) we had our first camp.

B: Having been to camps myself, I know putting one on is a lot of work, that seems really fast!  Especially considering you had to coordinate with the state to get the kids there and everything, that first year couldn’t have been easy!

K: Oh it definitely wasn’t easy! I had to raise $20,000 for that camp and I had absolutely no fundraising experience! I actually had many panic attacks that first year. The stress, worries, and fears were piling up and really getting to me. I was falling apart personally. I started really battling self-doubt about whether or not I had what it takes to be a leader.

B: So how did you get through that time?

K: There were a few things that helped me, my friends were huge to me during that time. I had a really supportive community who kept pushing me and encouraging me through the hard times. The second thing was that I read an amazing book called “The Dream Giver” by Bruce Wilkinson that is an allegory about a Nobody named Ordinary from the Land of Familiar who faces down all kinds of opposition on his journey to his Big Dream. The book was a huge encouragement to me, and still is because I re-read it all the time!

B: Yeah, I know thanks for that gift by the way!  It’s been super encouraging to me as well! You’re SO lucky you had such a supportive group of friends, not everyone has that!

K: Don’t get me wrong, I had PLENTY of people who told me that even though my ideas were great, they were just too big to be realized… and even more people who thought I was plain crazy for quitting my job and doing the things I was doing.  And actually those kinds of comments pushed me more than anything to be successful!  I rise to challenges! I’ve had to do a lot to learn about how to shut down negative feedback and manage it in my own mind.  That’s a very hard thing to deal with and it still comes up from time to time.

B: So has there ever been a time you wanted to quit?

K: Oh yeah, lots of times. I even had to take a break for awhile to pull myself together. It takes a ton of hard work and oh so many sacrifices to follow your dreams. I mean, I haven’t really dated anyone for 9 YEARS!!  I lost a lot of my friends because I was just too busy to keep up relationships (thankfully, I also gained new relationships through my charity work), and I went through SO much self doubt. I’ve had MANY tears and many failures. From the very beginning I found myself doing things I was not at all qualified to do. And I soon found out that when you make one bad decision, it makes you question everything about what you’re doing and who you are… but when you make multiple bad decisions, watch out, you’re about to crumble! Following your dreams is one of the hardest things in the world, but it is of course, so very VERY worth it!

B: Tell me a little bit more about what you have going on with the organization now.

K:  Well we still have those first two things we set our minds too… we have a girl’s camp and a boy’s camp every summer. And we still have the Christmas party every December. The new things we’ve added are the Princess Program for girls and The All-Star Program for boys. The point of both of these is to help build the kid’s confidence, break down barriers during the summer camp, and teach them the great things about themselves and what they have the ability to do in their lives.  These are the kinds of messages that most of these kids don’t hear often enough… especially from people they really trust.

B: My husband and I have gotten to be the photographers for multiple Princess Program events and my most memorable moment was when one of the girls put on her fancy prom dress (The Princess Program features a prom for these girls who are not very likely to ever get to go to a high school prom) and then as soon as she turned around and looked at herself in the mirror, she broke down crying immediately. It didn’t seem like it would help for her to see me crying too! So I did everything I could to hold it together as her counselors quickly put their arms around her and gently whispered encouraging things to her about how beautiful she is.  That moment to me, said so much about what you do. (I want to encourage everyone to go read the blog post I wrote about our first experience with the Princess Program because the pictures in it really help tell the story about what Kelli’s organization does). I know the Princess Program is about much more than physical beauty and you guys do a good job encouraging the girls in their inner beauty too, but it is absolutely amazing to see how those girls’ attitudes change the second they put on a beautiful dress!

K:  Oh totally, the princess program is one of my favorite things about camp each year. One of the reasons I started it was because I felt like I really know what it’s like to struggle with self-worth… and I have parents!  I absolutely can’t imagine what it would be like to struggle through that if you don’t even have a family of your own! At one point in my life, I had someone come alongside me and help instill some self-esteem in me so I wanted to try to pass that on.  I also sat down and thought about what little (and big) things would go into a night to make a girl feel truly special… and those are the kinds of things I’ve tried to incorporate into the program.

B: So tell me more about the 2 newest programs you guys have going on.

K: Well, our teen camp was filling the gap for the kids who were looking for a place to go after they turned 12, but then we found ourselves having problems figuring out what to do after the kids turned 16 and graduated the teen camp!  So we developed the Life Skills Program which is there to help kids from 16- early 20’s learn to do essential things that many never had a chance to learn as they were passed from home to home. They learn things like how to budget, cook, dress for a job interview, fill out college application forms, etc. I mean, one of our kids is only 16 and he’s moved 42 times in the 14 years he’s been in foster care!  Who’s ever going to sit down with that kid and teach him conflict resolution skills or how to find an apartment on a budget?

B: Seriously, a child with that much school system fluctuation is probably just lucky if he can read, let alone function in society! I was shocked when I heard that at 18, foster kids are required by law to leave their foster home even though most were never prepared for the real world!  I had no idea how many of them just end up on the streets!  It totally puts your Life Skills Program into perspective!

K: Exactly, we saw a great need for it and we also wanted to provide another place for the kids who graduated from our teen camp to continue going where they could build more constant relationships with adults who were willing to invest the time into helping them. In addition to that, we developed a scholarship program to help some of these kids go to college!  And we actually recently received a call from our first recipient who needed help moving into his dorm! That was huge for me because it really made me realize that we truly are his family… we’re the ones he calls when he needs help moving!

B:  Wow. So when did you realize, “this is it. I’m here”, I ‘m definitely doing the right thing with my life”?

K: There’s definitely a part of me that knew from the beginning back when I first quit my job, but that has really been reinforced through the fact that I’m lucky enough to get to see very tangible results working with these kids. I’m constantly getting amazing reports about various people’s interactions with the kids throughout different events… and I especially love when these stories relate to how much the kids have changed since they first began attending our programs. It’s truly amazing how much these kids bloom as soon as they feel “safe” to be vulnerable and let down their defenses. Both the kids themselves and the volunteers have beautiful stories about their experiences together and the things they remember from the events. And every time I hear a story about someone’s who’s life was changed through something in our program, I’m like, “yes, this is it. This is where I need to be”. Of course I have other things I want to do with my life, but they will most likely fit in around working with foster kids. Whether I go back to school, have my own family one day, or whatever it may be, I will still always be doing this in some capacity for the rest of my life.

B: Do you have any advice for others out there who are seeking to uncover and live out their own extraordinary lives?

K: I can’t stress enough the importance of having a support system in your life. Encouragement is so vital because even if you are the most motivated, self-confident person in the world, you WILL doubt yourself at times and you need people around you to help you push through that.  I also think that having a mentor is an important part of a successful support system. Finding someone who has ventured off and tried it before you so they can walk you through some of the challenges is a major tool in trudging through the hard parts.
Another major thing is to be OK with failure.  That’s a hard one to wrap your arms around… but it’s necessary. Failure is a way to learn and you have to be OK with just giving it all you’ve got and stepping back in hopes it will work. And going along with that, it’s very helpful if you can recognize that you don’t have to start off perfect, you can always change it later.

B: Sorry to interrupt, but I can’t help but laugh because I can’t tell you how many people told me that when I was getting ready to launch Rare Existence. I was really struggling with the design and functionality of it and everyone was like, “Breanna, just do it already!!! It doesn’t have to be perfect! You can change it later, just get it up!!” It’s good advice but so hard to listen to!

K: Tell me about it! But the sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be! It’s also important to have short term goals and celebrate your small successes along the way. Like you can celebrate that Rare Existence is up even if it doesn’t look exactly like you might want it to eventually!
And finally, one of the biggest things I want to stress is that the balance between work and life is so important!  I’ve made a lot of mistakes in this area and I paid the price for it. Boundaries are very important and if you ignore them, you’ll get into trouble.

B: I’ve been there myself, and am in fact still digging myself out of the hole that comes from an unbalanced life, so I second that piece of advice for sure! Self-care is VERY important in order to continue to thrive and have the important things in your life continue to thrive as well.

Thank you so much for being so vulnerable here, Kelli. I think your honesty will really help to encourage people wherever they’re at in their quest for a Rare Existence.  Your story is incredible and very inspiring, it’s such an honor that you let me share it!

(if you liked this story and want to hear more true stories about Extraordinary Living join the  Rare Existence Facebook community)!

If you want to learn more about some of the things mentioned in Kelli’s story see the links below:

Hope and a Future: The non-profit organization to help foster children that Kelli co-founded (also see info about The TRAC camps, The Christmas Party, The Princess Program, The All-Star Program, The Scholarship Program, and the Life Skills Program).

TRAC: The organization that helped train Kelli to launch her own camp for foster kids. They are still training camp directors if you’re interested in starting your own camp!

Royal Family Kid’s Camp: The camp Kelli initially went to for foster kids ages 7-11. This is a nationwide organization that holds camps all over America.

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