Volunteer Connects The Dots To Make Dreams Come True
MARCH 8, 2018
Ken Heitland was the first employee of Sprint to have “Webmaster” printed on his business card during a time when programming for the internet–as he says–was “hammer and nails,” without the easy-access to formatting tools. For ten years he was involved in management training, which later morphed into digital training when he began building online education courses on the subject. His internal management “customer” saw his work and immediately reached out: “Ken you know more about the internet than most of my product managers. Could you help us get started in this new business data service?” He did, and his subsequent work on GPS location programs may sound familiar: Sprint Navigation, which is still in use today, and Sprint Family Locator, the first product of its kind the company launched. While this might be enough for a successful career, in technology, Heitland didn’t stop there.
Heitland is a volunteer computer teacher for Once We Were Refugees, housed at Della Lamb (one of three refugee resettlement organizations in the Kansas City area), as well as Connecting For Good (CFG), where he teaches a class at Operation Breakthrough on financial literacy.
Once We Were Refugees trains refugee individuals how to sew so they can become self sufficient. In order to graduate, each person must complete certain projects in the program, such as making a pillowcase, shopping bag, pair of pants or skirt, and a quilt. Once finished, they receive not only a graduation certificate, but a sewing machine, an ironing board, iron, fabric and thread. The nonprofit is now aligned with Restoration Apparel, a company located in West Bottoms that makes children’s athletic team outfits. According to Heitland, Restoration Apparel hires refugees specifically because of their work ethic. So far the company has hired five people who graduated from Once We Were Refugees.
Heitland met 19-year-old Bakari, an African refugee, high school graduate and skilled seamster who was in a Syrian refugee camp before coming to the United States. “Bakari went zipping through the program and learned how to use an industrial machine very quickly, meaning he would have been eminently employable as a seamster,” said Heitland. As a computer teacher, he first likes to help others build a resume, which is how he learned of Bakari’s true passion: computers, more specifically, computer hardware restoration. “I had worked with him to put together a resume. It is one of the first things I like to do with people, mostly to get to know them, but also so they have an electronic copy and a physical piece of paper they can take to a job interview,” said Heitland. “It’s the first step to building a relationship.” Bakari could have easily received a job offer from Restoration Apparel, which was the direction he was headed, until Heitland reached out to Connecting For Good’s Kansas City, Kansas, location to begin teaching him basic computer refurbishing skills.
Connecting For Good is dedicated to serving low and moderate income individuals and families by supply low-cost computers and laptops. It was clear that Bakari needed his own laptop equipped with Windows 10 and Office Suite, and CFG was the perfect place to provide him with that. Within two weeks of receiving the laptop, Bakari was offered a work-study job in Denver, where he had family. “It was like overnight he leapfrogged out of the standard what you think of a refugee role wages, entry-level type job,” said Heitland. “It was really exciting to see that happen.”
Heitland has witnessed many success stories in his time as an educator and an IT professional. Tom Esselman, CEO of Connecting For Good, recognizes Heitland’s ability to connect with students on a personal level. “Ken is one of the most dedicated volunteers I’ve ever known. He genuinely embodies the spirit of neighbor-to-neighbor service,” said Esselman. “Ken models one of our core values, that education is the only path out of poverty.”
When asked what he has learned most through teaching, Heitland responded from experience. “One principle that carries out of academia and into adult education is the student comes first. Even when I started teaching for Once We Were Refugees, it became clear that it didn’t make any sense to set up classes because the people that came to us, and come to CFG, are all over the map in terms of their abilities and interests, as well as what they need and want,” said Heitland. “It is important to keep that in mind. You can try your best to group topics together and make classes and have a curriculum, which North Star helps with, but at the same time, [remember] you are trying to meet the needs of a specific person, not just teach a class.”
Heitland continued, “A second principle is the whole idea of digital inclusion, digital equity, mission. Our primary goal is to help people get a leg up and get a job or improve their circumstances,” he said. “We lift people up one-by-one to help them do what they need to, but also to do what they want to do and help make their dreams come true.”