Cincinnati nonprofit organization
It is a dream of most girls, to step out in a gorgeous evening gown, a flower corsage on her wrist and a young man on her side as she enters the darkened space. Her peers crowd the floor, watching her enter in awe. Her smile illuminates the room.
But, if not for a local nonprofit organization, Kenzie’s Closet, that dream would not come true for hundreds of teens every year. Kathy Smith knows. She has seen them transform from forlorn, hopeless girls into bundles of joy and laughter when they see themselves in a mirror, just as their dream had pictured them.
At no cost to them, Kenzie’s Closet provides prom attire to juniors and seniors at accredited Tri-State high schools who otherwise would not be able to afford dressing up for their important occasion. Even more than that, the organization provides a shopping experience for each young lady to shop in a boutique with a volunteer personal shopper there to help select the perfect dress.
Kathy was executive director of Kenzie’s Closet for four years, retiring just before our ReelAbilities Film Festival, for which she served as our volunteer chair.
Lisa: Why is this a cause for which you are so passionate?
Kathy: When I was interviewed for my position, I remember being asked a very similar question. They wanted to know why I wanted the job. My answer was that, if Kenzie’s Closet had existed in 1968, I would have been a Kenzie’s Girl. The only reason I was able to go to my prom was because a neighbor bough me my dress. All of Kenzie’s Girls are at or below the poverty level. They don’t have the resources available to buy or rent fancy dresses. Prom should be the highlight of their life. It was important to me to make sure that each girl have the opportunity to get the dress of their dreams. They get brand new shoes, a purse, a wrap, two pieces of jewelry and free alterations; and they keep everything, although we have had many donate back their dresses so that another girl can have the same experience. We are planting the seeds of philanthropy early.
Lisa: Can you share any moments that really touched you?
Kathy: There are so many of them. I felt like we were in many ways like being Fairy Godmothers. Coming to Kenzie’s Closet for these teenagers is their time to shine. Often, they arrive expecting to find a sort of thrift shop but they quickly realize it is very different. They may be scared when they walk through the door and by the time they are finished, they are hugging their personal shopper.
I remember one young woman who came in with a group. She was very tall and large. She kept giving me this look out of the corner of her eyes. She told me with a hardness in her voice that she didn’t think we would have anything for her. I looked at her and said, “Guess what? You are totally wrong.”
After going through her shopping, I went up to her and asked what happened that day. She asked if I wanted the truth. Tears began streaming down her face. She told me that her entire life she had been given torn or tattered clothing and been expected to give thanks. I asked her again what had happened. This time she put her chin out and told me, “Not only did you have a dress to fit me, I got to pick my own prom dress. And there is nothing smack about it.”
Lisa: What are some of your take-aways from your time leading Kenzie’s Closet?
Kathy: I knew all along that we were making dreams come true for over 400 young ladies each year. But I also had my dream come true working there. Our founder was my boss and she was so supportive and believed in me – not everyone has that. I worked with two incredible women that made going to work a pleasure – again not everyone has that. We had about 120 volunteers each year; they were always so joyful and happy to be there — again this helped me have an incredible career. My time at Kenzie’s Closet was a dream come true for me!
You may have seen TT Stern-Enzi’s film reviews on FOX 19 or in CityBeat. He also writes for the Dayton CityPaper. Several months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting him over coffee. He has such a kind soul about him and when he talks about his passions – films, kids, and family – he is an open book.
It is no wonder that in addition to writing about films, he has recently established a nonprofit organization called WatchWriteNow that combines it all. Through WatchWriteNow, TT uses film as a means for developing critical thinking and analysis skills in students, exposing them to creativity as well. He develops programs where participants have weekly exposure to him, then go home to watch and talk about movies and shows with their parents, siblings, and friends. Students also write commentary for TT’s WatchWriteNow blog.
Let’s learn more about TT.
Lisa: Tell us about your love for film, including where it began and how it has evolved.
TT: My earliest memories of movies go back to my mother, before I even started going to see them. My mom loved music and would buy soundtracks (Shaft, Trouble Man, etc.) and I remember spending hours staring at the album covers. I wasn’t old enough to see the movies, but I probably made up my own movies based on those LP sleeves. Then, when I started school and proved to be a dedicated student, my mom would take me to the movies after school, as a treat for a good report card. She took me to whatever I wanted to see (that was appropriate, of course), which meant a lot of fantasy stuff (swords and sorcery). I was into Dungeons & Dragons and I read stuff like Michael Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, and later Stephen Donaldson and Frank Herbert. Really, I would read anything, but sci-fi and fantasy opened the door for me and probably influenced my movie choices for a time, even though I quickly developed a rather eclectic range. I like to say now that I love good movies and good books, and that means there are no genre limitations. Great films can be found in any genre, you just have to be open to them. Sci-fi, drama, romance, foreign language, indie. The categories are meaningless. The same notion applies to music, books, theater, art, everything. You don’t have to like everything, but when it comes to film, I want to try to see as much of it as I can while I’m able.
Lisa: What is one of your favorite films and why?
TT: Blue Velvet is my all-time favorite film. I saw it at least four times during its opening weekend in 1986 and then went to my AP English class that Monday morning and asked my teacher if we could talk about it. I needed to crack it open and that felt like the right place to do it, and fortunately my teacher – who is still at the school – let us. We spent about 30 minutes on it and I then went back to see it multiple times the next couple of weekends. I’ve seen it over 30 times on the big screen over the years and it still reveals little secrets to me each time. Last year, I was able to take my oldest daughter to see a special 30th anniversary print of it in NYC. She was the same age I was when I saw it back in 1986, and it was one of those memories I will cherish forever. We walked the streets afterward, talking about the film and David Lynch, Twin Peaks and everything.
I realize that having a teacher indulge my curiosity and passion like that, was probably what set me on this path, and I hope that through my non-profit, I might be able to do the same for a few of the kids I see in WatchWriteNow programs.
The funny thing about Blue Velvet though is that it is not, technically speaking, the best film I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what that is or how I could ever determine something like that. I just know that Blue Velvet continues to be my favorite, likely because of that story behind my lifelong experience with it.
Lisa: What is one of your most memorable interviews and why?
TT: Thanks to CityBeat, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct a few hundred interviews over the years and there are lots of fun stories in those exchanges. A favorite though is my chat with Martin Landau. He was helping to promote his appearance in City of Ember (2008) and the promotional reps set up a day and time for us to catch up. There was a mixup and I had to leave the house before I received his call. I got back home and there was a direct message on my office voicemail from Mr. Landau. As a film geek, I was already nervous about interviewing him – I mean, he’s had such a career. The man worked with Alfred Hitchcock, and he’s leaving a casual message on my voicemail. When we finally spoke to one another, I stumbled through my questions, trying not to geek out on him, and towards the end, I asked him about his process for finding his characters beyond what’s on the page. In reply, he did this little exercise where he walked me through the five boroughs of New York, creating a set of characters and voices right then and there. It was so much more than an auditory experience. I felt like I was in the same room with him, watching him transform into these people. When he finished, I tried to compliment him (and really thank him for sharing that with me) and he just chuckled and said that’s what he gets paid to do. It was brilliant, and I’ve got it save now in my iTunes library.
Lisa: When you look back at your life, what is one of your proudest accomplishments?
TT: It sounds weird to say this, but I think the life I’m still trying to live is the accomplishment that matters most. I haven’t come close to any kind of perfect example of the things I’ve talked about here, but I’m always trying, striving to live it. I said at the start that I’m still that geeky kid. If I can keep that up and let others (especially the kids I work with) see the effort, then I would be proud and satisfied with that.
It has been about three weeks now since I left the Duke Energy Center, exhausted (and sick) from an incredible experience of being part of one of the hardest working teams you will ever meet, all working toward a goal of building something so powerful and important as to positively affect an entire region, and the way in which its people see, appreciate and welcome one another.
The Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD is a leading example. It was the culmination of work by dozens of volunteers, a small core staff team who spent many long hours, sponsors, the media, and the community that ultimately made Cincinnati ReelAbilities a success. This was my second year serving as director of public relations for the event that has grown into one of the country’s largest film festivals centered around bringing people together to celebrate our uniqueness in our appearance, our cultures, and our ethnicities; and the way we participate in, see and interpret our world. Its films all shared a common theme of telling the stories of those who experience disabilities.
Susan Brownknight, executive director of LADD, has said time and again that ReelAbilities really speaks to who we are and what we value individually and collectively. What she referred to in her words is our sense of humanity, and the way in which we include and welcome each other in every facet of our community.
For four days, national celebrities were among us as we spent time meeting new friends, laughing, and opening dialogue to lead to new perspectives. Through the passionate messages of speakers at each of the parties, the discussions following films, and the casual networking in the hallways, communication flowed freely. Questions of curiosity and interest, that, under other circumstances may never be asked, were given open, honest and genuine answers. People diverse by age, race, religion, culture, appearance, and mode of pursuing life were valued. They were included.
Actor John Lawson told our audience at our Meet the Stars Opening Event, “One of the things I like about Cincinnati ReelAbilities is the hashtag #DifferentLikeYou. In those three little words, it says so much because we are all different like you but it is how we come together and use them that is our inspiration and our strength.”
RJ Mitte, our Premier Luncheon keynote speaker, so beautifully shared, “What you may perceive is abnormal is our normality. We live this. We know no different. I have never experienced a lot of these things these gentlemen and women have experienced in their life, and vice versa. The same can be said about you. There is a lot that you experience in your everyday life that we don’t know. The normality is that we all have our own normal and we need to remember that because we are all brought on this planet to evolve and to learn. And each of these challenges people perceive as disabilities are challenges that no one else except that individual will ever understand. Yes it is harder in certain areas. No one wants to have these types of physicalities, these types of mental weights but at the end of the day we all have them. Ours may be something you may consider severe but they are no different than everyday life. And we evolve, we grow and we try every day to live our normality. We wake up the same way. We do the same work. We live our lives and have families. And there really is no difference. And that is what we are trying to bring awareness to with this Festival. That is what is really crucial with these films. It brings a new normality to disability. You (the audience) can be that catalyst to represent that.”
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein told our Interfaith Breakfast guests, “What this Film Festival is about, what the work that is being done is about, is about the idea of expressing the understanding and appreciating of the little things in life. It is the little things that we crave, that we want when we come in contact with a family of a disability. They want their child to be able to go outside, to the park, to go to school. They want to live a life of normalcy. They crave what makes life worth living.
The more that you crave those little things, the more that you want them. Those are things that go into life, the blessings. That is the core of creation. Celebrate the little things. The more you want a job, to go to school, to have a house, to have a family. That is the blessing.
When we spend time with people who have disabilities, we are not doing a charity. We are ultimately given the chance to connect with God. We are ultimately given the chance to appreciate life, to understand life. We are ultimately given the chance to come to appreciate everything in life that should be appreciated.”
Wow, such powerful, resonating words.
Following the Festival, a small group of us got together to celebrate. There we reminisced about some of the impact we saw. We remembered our VIP Bryan Anderson, a retired US Army sergeant, Purple Heart recipient, and Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador, showing a group of children how his prosthetic arm could rotate 360 degrees. We remembered when our VIPs stood before a full theatre of children to answer questions – one of them being, “How did you get your disability?” It was an opportunity for VIP and actress Jamie Brewer to explain down syndrome…and for VIP and actor/comedian Nic Novicki (who happens to have dwarfism) to tell them he didn’t eat his vegetables. And, after our Closing Night Event, one mother came up to someone on our team and shared that that night was the very first time her son had a reason to be proud of his disability.
Yes, Justice Bernstein, spending time at the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival absolutely gave us the chance to appreciate and understand life, and everything in life that should be appreciated. That includes appreciating each other.
Thank you Cincinnati, for helping us celebrate our differences, for having open and receptive minds to learning, for helping to be part of strengthening our region by welcoming and including everyone.
My 2017 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Photo Album
(note: after a few seconds, when you move your mouse over it, you can tap on one of the arrows to move forward or backward in the photo album)
I am so fortunate that my work allows me the opportunity to get to know some incredible people who are so passionate about their cause. Kate Lopez is definitely among them. She and I met when I coordinated the marketing/public relations for the 2015 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD, Inc. and we are working together again on the 2017 Festival. Kate is such a joy to be around. On a big event, with so many missing pieces, it is great to be working with someone like her who takes initiative and does what it takes to get the job done and done well. And with a smile on her face! For this Festival, Kate is an instrumental member of our team and the amazing thing is she is doing it while living temporarily with her family in Nashville, Tennessee. She commutes back and forth frequently.
Something I didn’t realize until recently about Kate is that her passion for this work stems from her own disability. It was because of Krohn’s Disease that, at the age of 14, she underwent a 9 ½ hour surgery to remove her large intestine. It was the procedure that altered her life forever, not because of the loss of her organ, but because the over pressurization of her muscles from having her legs in one position for that long caused something called compartment syndrome. In other words, she lost most of the muscles in her lower legs.
For a teenage girl who was the star of her volleyball team, and an overall competitive athlete, that sudden change was not easy…even more so at such a sensitive period in a girl’s life.
“It was definitely identity changing but I had a supportive family and friends who gave me the power to turn my life into something,” she told me. “I wear braces most of the time but people don’t know I have a disability. I can’t run and be as active as I want to be but I try to do as much as I can.”
Below are Kate’s answers to my questions.
Lisa: Because of your early experience, you are now professionally helping others as you were helped.
Kate: I was a sophomore in high school when I began volunteering at the Drake Center, where I also participated in physical therapy. My parents didn’t think I would be able to drive again but I learned how to drive with hand controls at Drake Hospital. That combination of Drake’s impact on other people as well as my own life really is what influenced my career choice. I am a therapist now with a specialty in teaching people to drive with adaptations, if it is safe to drive. I want people to see that there is a way to live fully with a disability.
Lisa: What is a life lesson you learned from your surgery?
Kate: I learned life is more fragile than you think when you are a teenager but also that it isn’t just your body that can be strong. Your mind is what is stronger. It made me fierce in making me want to be independent and to make as much of a difference in the world as I can. I also learned that life doesn’t have to be what you expect. I keep learning that with each patient and each interaction.
It has made me more thankful for the people I have around me. I feel like I am not as alone as I may think because of my support system and that makes me want to be that support system for others. I don’t let anything hold me back – I travel extensively, I scuba dive and mountain climb. I do physical things, I just do them in an adaptive way now.
Lisa: How did you become involved with ReelAbilities?
Kate: I went to the first Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival, then co-chaired the Veterans Committee of the 2015 Film Festival. The stories just meant so much to me. I don’t think I’d want to stray from them, as it is a connection with others who share my same passion. One of the best things that happened from my involvement was when I was talking to a friend who has a daughter with Spina Bifida. She shared how someone came up to her at ReelAbilities and said she doesn’t recognize anybody. That was the biggest compliment of the Festival because it demonstrated that we are reaching people who are not normally sought.
Lisa: You have define disability differently. Can you explain?
Kate: To me, I see a disability as something that would limit an aspect of life. An impairment, however, is something that is different and something is not working as well. Disability impacts your participating in life. Sometimes I am just in the impairment phase. One of the biggest things about wearing braces is finding shoes that I like but I’ve got it down to a science to find shoes I like and adapt them and make it work. I will not let the impairment get in the way.
Lisa: You have a seven year old son. What do you teach im about disabilities?
Kate: My son is around a lot of people with disabilities through my work, experience, and friends. I try to lead by example and don’t make difference as noticeable. He calls my braces my shoes. He just thinks some people have differences and others don’t. When it comes to kids struggling, I teach him to be more helpful and patient. When it comes to physical difference, I’m not sure he even notices. I just make it part of the package of the real world. We really are all the same on the inside and that is what matters most.
Absolutely, Kate, that IS what matters most!
It had been years since Karyl Cunningham and I had last seen each other. In fact, admittedly we had a hard time remembering where we met, but that didn’t seem to matter. Within in minutes I felt as I was sitting across the table from a very close friend.
That is Karyl’s way. When you speak, she listens with careful focus. She naturally inspires others to want to do more, be more, achieve more. Her smile leaves you with a strong reminder that she is someone who cares.
Ironically I learned she has the role now of another woman who also held a special place in my heart, Toni Miles. Karyl is executive director of the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati’s Black and Latino Achiever’s Program which provides teens with essential tools for pursuing higher education and identifying career opportunities. One hundred percent of the Program’s high school seniors graduate high school, with over ninety percent entering post secondary education and over eighty percent, completing college, earning Associate’s or Bachelor’s degrees. I remember well seeing the importance of this work during the five years I did public relations work for the Y.
It is no wonder Karyl is the recipient of numerous community activity awards, including the 2016 Venue Magazine Women of Influence Award, 2006 Star Award, Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, for individual community contribution; Urban All-American Achievement Award, Toledo, Ohio; and Ohio State Assembly Community Service Recognition.
She has served on several nonprofit boards, including the Leadership Council, Seton High School, and Healthy Moms and Babes. And she serves on the boards of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, the OTR Foundation and the 3CDC New Market Funds Advisory board and member of the Citizen Advisory Panel for Agenda 360.
Let’s learn more about Karyl.
Lisa: Please tell us about a life experience that may have been difficult or challenging, but ended up being a positive growth lesson.
Karyl: I would say that the most difficult challenge for me, was as young women beginning my first non-profit position in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. After working there about a year, I was approached by my employer who had an interested in transferring me to Covington, Kentucky to open up a satellite office that would serve individuals who were underemployed or unemployed and interested in starting a career in retail sales. To say the least, I was nervous and skeptical in moving from my hometown, which at the time felt so final. In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions that I made. As a result of this move, I fell in love with Cincinnati and decided to take a leap of faith and look for other opportunities that would align to my skills, knowledge and abilities in the field of education or non-profit work. I overcame my fear of leaving my safe place and jumping right in! And I am still here, after 30 plus years.
Lisa: What are some of your greatest passions and how do they impact your career and life choices?
Karyl: Definitely I’d say connecting with people, reading history/novels and cooking. In life…we are all connected, somehow and in some way, and it is a beautiful thing. People can impact your life in so many good ways, ways that give us hope, gives us advise and teaches us to advance to our greater good! History teaches us so much about who we are, why we are – and supplies us with a foundation and framework for making decisions in both our personal and professional lives. Cooking allows us to blend people and conversation over great bounty!
Lisa: What is the greatest legacy or impact that you hope to be remembered by when others think about you?
Karyl: I want people to remember me as someone who was always honest, trustworthy and a true friend! Someone who made a difference!
Lisa: What is one of your favorite pieces of advice and why?
Karyl: Never allow anyone’s negative opinion of you, become your reality! That advice says it all!