I remember my first meeting at KIND during the organization’s early days in Washington, D.C. It was with KIND President Wendy Young, and it was in a closet. It was a closet that had been converted into a temporary office until KIND’s first office space was ready, I should add, and it was small, windowless, and uninspiring. The modest space belied the exciting vision Wendy laid for KIND and its work.
It was a vision of a comprehensive, holistic system of care for unaccompanied children which would protect them at every step of their journey. The goals Wendy laid out that day were ambitious, creative, somewhat daunting, and rooted in a pragmatism that paved the way for KIND’s extraordinary success in ensuring the protection of these children across a spectrum of care.
As I left the office/closet that day about 15 years ago, did I imagine that KIND would grow from seven offices in the United States to 15, plus offices in Central America, Mexico, and Europe? That our staff would grow from 12 to nearly 500, that we would serve more than 30,000 unaccompanied children, and train over 50,000 legal professionals? That we would have a robust social services team that would help children with their many non-legal and vital needs?
I did not. But Wendy Young did.
We spent many of those early days educating people about unaccompanied children – who they were, why they would come to the United States without a parent or legal guardian, the challenges they faced in the immigration system and within their new communities. At that time, about 6,000 – 8,000 unaccompanied children entered the United States each year. Many we talked to – Congressional staff members on Capitol Hill and other policymakers, law firms, corporations, the media, potential donors, and other supporters – had never heard of this group of children and were stunned to learn that the majority – from toddlers to teenagers – did not have an attorney to make their case for U.S. protection in immigration court. We explained that it was nearly impossible for children to navigate the system without an attorney and that the deck was stacked against them in proceedings that would determine their future safety and well-being. We explained that KIND was founded to fill this egregious child protection gap. People readily signed on, and to date we have over 800 partners helping ensure that unaccompanied children do not face court alone.
Soon after our founding, we started noting a new trend resulting from rising violence in Central America. Each year, the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States grew, and starting in 2011, the number started to grow exponentially. Demand for our services increased. And again in 2014, and each year after that, the numbers grew significantly to this day – the number of children who came alone to the United States in Fiscal Year 2023 was nearly 140,000.
Throughout this sea change, KIND adapted to the growing needs of these children and to meet the challenges as they arose to help the children wherever they were. We gathered expansive expertise as our experience with unaccompanied children grew along with our caseload. We addressed their social services needs by creating a robust national social services team to help our clients access medical and mental health care, education, food, housing, and other fundamental services. We advocated to advance law, policy, and practice to help ensure access to protection and fair treatment. We created a child-centered, trauma informed storytelling program to help children share their stories for public education and advocacy. We expanded our work in Central America and Mexico and launched our pro bono model in the United Kingdom and Europe to help children alone or separated from their family due to war and conflict. As opportunities arose to use our unique expertise to help more children, advance our advocacy, and to educate new audiences, we seized them.
None of this would have been possible without our hugely talented, compassionate, and dedicated staff and pro bono partners who are wholly committed to the mission and the children we serve. I have seen how they go above and beyond to meet the needs of the children and literally change, and at times save, the lives of children. It is a special experience to witness the connection, care, and trust in their relationships.
At the core of all this – the true heart of KIND – are the children we serve. Every KIND client I’ve met has struck me with their ordinariness and extraordinariness at the same time. They are kids and young people like all others their age across the globe. They have dreams and goals for their future – and love what most children and young people love: all things digital, music, and being with their friends. They are extraordinary for surviving, and often thriving, despite experiences that no one should have to face, never mind a child. Their hope for a better future and a better world is remarkably strong. And they have great wisdom and self-knowledge that many adults may never achieve. Every time I engage with a client, I am reminded of our shared humanity as a global community.
It’s been a privilege to be part of this now vast and still growing movement for unaccompanied children that KIND created. While we are far, far from those days of the office/closet, KIND has never wavered from the original vision that Wendy shared in that confining space: to help children alone wherever they are in the world throughout their journey to safety.