As a child in Upper Michigan, Shawna Kemppainen was always aware of her privilege. But it wasn’t until her time volunteering for Care and Share Food Bank in 2004 that she came face to face with it.

While manning the food bank’s phone lines, Kemppainen answered a call from a woman in her 60s. The woman had enough food, she explained, but her husband’s medical bills left little to spare for basic necessities like toothpaste and soap. Did Kemppainen know where she could find some?

“I literally hung up the phone and was like, ‘What country am I living in? This is a senior citizen who cannot afford toothpaste because of the cost of her health care,’” Kemppainen said. “It really was a gut punch for me: ‘I should be doing more. How can I do more?’”

A week later, Kemppainen left behind a career in journalism for her first foray into the nonprofit world, as a grant writer for Care and Share. She has spent the past 6½ years as executive director of The Place — formerly Urban Peak — an organization that helps lead Pikes Peak-area youth out of homelessness.

“To reach our full potential, we have to have the basic needs met,” Kemppainen  said. “If you’re hungry, or if you don’t have a place to live, it’s really hard to focus on actualizing yourself. I’ve always been drawn to helping people with those basic needs.”

Those in The Place’s target demographic — people 15 to 24 years old — are at a critical developmental stage, and lacking those basic needs during that time could become a lifelong detriment, Kemppainen said.

“Eighteen is not a magical age where suddenly you know how to adult,” she said. “Especially if a young person has fallen into homelessness, they often have a lot of toxic stress that’s happening that compounds whatever other transitions that they’re going through. … Our job is really helping youth see that they have a choice about what they want their future to be. They have the same dreams as any other young person — they just haven’t often had the structure and support to help them see how to get there.”

A self-described “pragmatic idealist,” Kemppainen wants to help both clients and staff formulate a vision for their future while also keeping sight of the present reality.

“I’m really flexible, and I think that walking alongside people is the most important thing we can do to help them reflect in themselves who they can be,” she said. “Accountability is the backbone of compassion. Compassion won’t work to change things if accountability isn’t riding along with it.”

For Kemppainen, the greatest reward is seeing young people celebrate success as they themselves have defined it, as well as knowing they have found a place where they belong.

“It is so important to bring yourself to work. You shouldn’t check who you are at the door, because it’s hard to follow someone who’s not authentic,” she said. “We all need to feel like we can belong somewhere. I think finding that is so much clearer when you’re being authentic.”

Women of Influence 2019: Shawna Kemppainen