As the son of successful entrepreneurs, 13-year-old Kenan Pala was born with a head for creative problem-solving. Fortunately for San Diego’s homeless community, his head has been focused for the past few years on making their lives better.
Pala is the founder of Kids 4 Community, a youth-focused volunteer organization that meets regularly to provide meal service and assemble hygiene kits, care packages and, this month, Christmas stockings for the needy. In May, he was one of 10 youth volunteers in America to receive the 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Award.
“K.P. is an amazing kid,” said Greg Anglea, CEO of Interfaith Community Services in Escondido. “I joke that he’s going to take over the world someday. It’s a good thing he’s on the side of good.”
Kenan, an 8th-grader at Francis Parker School in San Diego, is the eldest son of Serhat Pala and Zeynep Ilgaz, who immigrated from their native Turkey in 1998. The couple earned their MBAs together at San Diego State University, then Serhat started several entrepreneurial businesses before he and his wife co-founded Confirm Biosciences in Scripps Ranch in 2008. Ilgaz said giving back to their adopted country has always been a priority for her family.
“We’re your typical immigrant story. We came here with no money, got our degrees together and then worked hard like anybody else,” she said. “We got a lot of help along the way, especially from the San Diego community, and always felt like if there was a way we could give back, we would do that, and our children would do the same.”
Since he was in kindergarten, Kenan said he’s been volunteering alongside his parents serving dinners to the homeless at local shelters.
“It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” he said. “Seeing those people at the shelters made me really grateful for the great life I have. It was also a call to action for me to volunteer more and help these people get out of their situation.”
Kenan and his brother Arden, a third-grader, set aside 10 percent of their weekly allowance for charity. His parents do the same with their salaries, and they donate 5 percent of their company sales to SDSU and other schools.
But it was an experience on a day trip last year that spurred Kenan to dramatically ramp up his homeless outreach. That day, he saw a large crowd trying to rescue a seal pup on the beach. But on his car ride home, he saw people walking by a homeless man, ignoring his pleas for help.
“I sat in the car thinking about why a sick baby seal was surrounded by concerned citizens while a hungry homeless man was receiving no help,” he said.
With his parents’ help, he started Kids 4 Community and has since enlisted the help of friends, family and his classmates at Francis Parker. On campus last year, he led a drive that collected 6,000 boxes of cereal for local soup kitchens. The students assembled 4,000 empty cereal boxes on the school’s gymnasium floor, a feat that set the Guinness World Record as the largest cardboard box mosaic.
Kevin Dunn, director of community engagement at Francis Parker School, said Kenan is a natural leader and an articulate speaker who’s always front and center at the events he organizes.
“The students all respect him and look to him as an expert in the field,” Dunn said. “This school does a great job of developing young leaders, but they get it from their parents and Kenan’s mom and dad are great role models.”
Kenan said his family keeps a calendar by the dinner table to keep track of the events they plan, and he and his parents use multiple computers to plan logistics, secure donations for supplies and do outreach for volunteers.
Using social media to plan events, they gather 200 to 300 volunteers every month or two at the Confirm Biosciences offices to pack items for the needy. Over the past year, they’ve raised more than $5,000 in cash donations, assembled more than 5,000 hygiene kits, sent 2,500 care packages to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and Mexico, made more than 3,000 brown-bag lunches for local homeless shelters and “adopted” more than 100 families to help with basic needs.
This past Sunday , several hundred volunteers filled 2,000 stockings with donated toys and personal items for families assisted by Interfaith Community Services. Kenan also leads a group of volunteers who serve dinners at Interfaith’s homeless shelter, Haven House.
“He’s very down to earth and enjoys getting to interact with people directly,” said Anglea with Interfaith. “I think he appreciates the opportunity to help people face to face, not just provide a warm meal, but also a friendly smile. He’s just a remarkable young man.”
In November, Anglea presented Kenan with one of the North County Philanthropy Council’s Volunteer of the Year awards.
When he’s not doing charity work, Kenan said he enjoys running triathlons and playing guitar. He’s also the founder of an entrepreneurship club at his school. After high school, he said he’d like to attend Stanford University and start his own company where he can use his profits to one day end homelessness and other social problems.
It may seem an unrealistic goal but Dunn, at Francis Parker School, said the sky could be the limit for Kenan.
“If he doesn’t become a humanitarian, he’ll dedicate a lot of his life and his company’s proceeds to those causes,” Dunn said. “He’s going to have a lot of doors open up for him and will stay centered and honor the values his family has instilled in him.”
Written by Pam Kragen