When we sat down with our coworking member Grace Kim, we were reminded of the importance of empowering others to pursue their dreams even in the midst of tragedy and hardship. That’s the mission of the Dragon Kim Foundation– they fund and create programs that enable children to explore and pursue their passions within academics, athletics, and the arts. This idea, however, was not Grace Kim’s. It was Dragon’s – her son who tragically passed away in a camping accident. Grace and her husband, Daniel, took their grief and honored their son by forming the The Dragon Kim Foundation.
Please describe the story of what led you to form The Dragon Kim Foundation.
In November, 2000, my husband and I had a baby, a boy – our first child. 2000 was the year of the golden dragon. Dragons, in Asian cultures, are auspicious symbols, signifying power, benevolence, good fortune. It was only fitting that we name our son ‘Dragon’.
Dragon enjoyed many things, like playing water polo or hanging out with friends, good Mexican food and hot Korean BBQ. But most of all, Dragon loved music. Dragon started out playing the piano. In Junior high, he took up the trombone, the saxophone, and taught himself to play a bunch of other instruments. Gifted with perfect pitch, Dragon grew in his love for music. In high school, he started at OCSA, the Orange County School of the Arts, studying Instrumental Music and playing trombone in their Symphonic Band. He loved being in that creative environment, with talented kids all doing what they love to do. But in Santa Ana where his school is located, 48% of kids under 5 live in poverty. Their parents are focused on survival. They aren’t getting violin lessons and trombone lessons. Their schools do not have music as part of their curriculum.
Dragon didn’t think that was fair, and wanted to do something to make music accessible to these children. He went to the Director of his music program and asked, “If I collect donations and instruments, and my friends and I help teach, would OCSA provide a music instructor and a classroom?” They were all set to launch in the Fall. But that Summer, we went camping in Yosemite with friends. We invited Dragon’s dear friend Justin. That first night, while we were sleeping, a massive oak tree limb cracked and fell on Dragon and Justin’s tent. It killed the two boys instantly. In a split second, we lost Justin, and we lost our son, Dragon.
Shattered, we didn’t know what to do. A friend of ours gave us the advice, Honor Dragon first, mourn him later. So at Dragon’s memorial, we explained to everyone that we wanted to remember Dragon by launching the music program he had planned, and we asked for their help. With monetary donations from the funeral and instrument donations afterwards, we launched the Dragon Kim Foundation.
So the Music program is a cornerstone program for our Foundation. The music program was Dragon’s idea. It was how Dragon wanted to change his corner of the world. Building on that, we launched the Dragon Kim Fellowship. Just as Dragon had a desire to share his love of music and give others the opportunity to learn music, other high schoolers have great ideas of how to help their communities. The Fellowship supports high school students with passion, drive, and a great idea. We provide leadership and business training, connect the Fellows with a business mentor willing to pass on their knowledge and share their contacts, and up to $5,000 to launch their community service project, for the summer and beyond.
This year, we had ten amazing Dragon Fellows working on four projects. As an example, Kyra and Emilia set up an art camp for homeless children and kids in a transitional shelter. Their summer art camp taught kids basic and sophisticated art techniques, but more importantly, gave the children an outlet for self-expression and the knowledge that people cared about and believed in them. Ruben and Bryan developed a program to teach underprivileged kids in LA how to build a computer from individual components. We are investing in these future leaders as much as the projects themselves. We hope we are seeding tomorrow’s leader with a passion for helping their communities.
What were some of the first steps that you took in starting this organization?
Knowing how he wanted to share his love of music with others, we collected used instruments, and used the money we collected to buy more instruments. A very close friend of ours, a lawyer, offered to help with the legal submissions to form a non-profit organization, and with that, we started the Dragon Kim Foundation.
In January 2016, we piloted a music program with a small group of Santa Ana elementary school students. Today, a year later, we have 100 kids in the program – high school students teaching and sharing their love of music, and elementary school kids from Santa Ana that receive a free instrument to take home for the year, music lessons on Friday, and an opportunity to play in our annual concert in front of a packed crowd of 500.
Were you hesitant or doubtful at all, or did you go full force into this vision?
We definitely had our doubts. We both have careers in business, Daniel in Finance and me in Marketing, but neither of us had experience starting a foundation. But we were so overwhelmed with grief, we didn’t have time to worry about our doubts. It was just clear that this was something that we wanted to do, that we should do.
What did/does your support system look like?
Professionally, we have a supportive Board of Directors – 9 individuals committed to helping us keep the Foundation strategically and financially solid. We have committees of amazing volunteers that help us plan and execute our Annual Benefit Concert and our Fellowship Program. The Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) has been a wonderful partner for us for the Music Program, and we especially appreciate the support of Teren Shaffer, the VP of Development at OCSA. BOS Media Group stepped up early on to design and create a beautiful and sophisticated website for us, and continues to work with us to keep our online presence engaging.
Personally, our friends and family have surrounded us with their love, support, and prayers. Grief is a lonely road, but people have come alongside us to walk with us, and we are eternally thankful for that.
The Compassionate Friends group in Irvine, a group of mothers and fathers that have suffered the unspeakable tragedy of losing a child, has also been there for us, offering a forum where we can support each other in our grief and mourning.
There is a wonderful quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” Well, in launching the Foundation and creating a way to help children find their passions, the Universe has indeed worked in surprising ways to help us. For example, last year, I submitted an entry when FLDWRK was looking for a new name. Though my submission was not chosen, FLDWRK awarded me a runners-up prize that helped fund my membership, giving me a place to work on the Foundation. So thank you, FLDWRK, for being part of our support system!
In what ways have you had to be patient to see the results of what you are growing?
We believe in jumping right into it to get things done – that’s the good thing about being a small organization – but we have also taken prudent steps to pilot programs before we launch them full force. So, we executed the pilots and then had to wait to see how they develop to understand what’s working and what’s not working.
What has been the best platform for reaching your intended audience?
We have a strong following on Facebook and Instagram, and our newsletter has really helped us share our stories with our supporters.
What has been your biggest challenge in growing your organization?
Knowing when to start hiring people to help us vs. relying on volunteer support. Trusting others to help us with our mission.
What has been the most unexpected part of this whole process?
We have loved watching kids taking care of other kids. In our music program, it has been a joy watching the high school mentors teaching the Santa Ana elementary school kids – trombone players helping trombone players, violinists teaching the new violinists. In our Fellowship program, it’s been watching a senior in high school patiently teach a 4th grader how to pick up a motherboard and place it in the cavity of the computer next to the fan, sharing his love of technology with a younger person. But nothing beats the sparkle in the eyes of children learning and doing what they love to do.
Looking at the journey of your organization so far, what’s one memory that sticks out to you?
I’m reading Brene Brown’s newest book, Braving the Wilderness. In it, one of the many concepts she discusses is the concept of collective effervescence, the joy we experience when we come together – at a concert, an event, a rally. Our first concert was an unforgettable moment of collective effervescence for me. We planned it in just a few months. We had the children from our Music Program brass ensemble playing, along with the OCSA Wind Ensemble and our musical guest, AJ Rafael. From beginning to end, it was one great performance after another. Since it was our first concert, we didn’t know what to expect in terms of attendance. That night, we had 500 people! People told me afterwards that the music was wonderful, but the feeling of love and support was amazing.
Where do you hope to go from here?
We plan to grow the Fellowship Program to 10-15 Fellowships this year, 25 in a couple years, and 100 national Fellowships a year within a few years!
Any additional thoughts you’d like to inspire readers with?
When we first started accepting applications for our Fellowship program, a young man that I had been encouraging to apply texted me: “I want to apply, but everything I think of seems too small, too insignificant.” I suggested that he start with whatever it is he loves to do. Like Dragon, who started with music. Dragon didn’t start with a big dream for changing the world – that would have been too intimidating. He just knew that he loved music, and he wanted to share that love of music with others. Just start with what you love, and change your little corner of the world.
How can we get involved with the Dragon Kim Foundation?
A couple areas come immediately to mind: If you know a young person in high school who wants to share his passion and help his community, encourage him to apply to become a Dragon Fellow. If you want to help young people, join the Fellowship Program by volunteering as a mentor!
Also, we are looking for a Program Management Intern to join our team. If you would like to join the start-up team of a non-profit looking to empower young people, please apply! You can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grace is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Dragon Kim Foundation. A writer and photographer, Grace is also a marketing professional with 15+ years’ experience in consumer marketing with companies such as Allergan, ConAgra Brands, Yahoo!, and Deloitte Consulting. Grace lives in Tustin with her husband, their daughter, and their golden retrievers, and she goes everywhere with her son Dragon in her heart.