Q&A with Ken Kieffer
A lifelong commitment to serving others
By Jillian Chandler
Growing up in Wisconsin, Michigan and Massachusetts, Ken Kieffer had never been west of St. Louis until 1977—the same year he first visited Gig Harbor. He loved the Narrows Bridge, and as he started down the hill toward Harborview Drive, he knew that he had found his place in the world and the perfect place to raise a family. A graduate of Georgetown University and Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C., he returned to Gig Harbor “for good and forever” on St. Patrick’s Day of 1980.
He and his wife had two sons, Andy and Joey, and a daughter, Meg, when they purchased their first home in Gig Harbor that same year. With roots that run deep and true, Ken admits he has long had a gravesite at the Haven of Rest. The gravesite is his solemn (but joyful) promise: He is never leaving Gig Harbor.
Q. Do you recall the first time you volunteered your time and what it was for? How did it make you feel?
A. When I was very little, my mom put a note in my lunch every day. On the second or third day, Mom’s note was a quote from John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
That seed my mom planted took full flower in 1970, when I was a junior at Georgetown. I saw a hand-lettered sign asking for volunteers at a Special Olympics track meet over the weekend. I volunteered, and I fell in love with Special Olympics.
Q. Can you tell our readers some of the organizations you are/have been involved with over the years? And what motivated you to become involved with these in particular?
A. I fear and regret leaving some wonderful organizations out, but here are some of the causes to which I am most devoted. I just passed my 50th year as a Special Olympics volunteer. I am honored to help at local, district and state games and events, and have served as a volunteer at each Special Olympics National Games. I have also volunteered at Special Olympics European Summer Games in Belgium, and at Special Olympics World Games in Ireland (as a soccer volunteer), Los Angeles (with Team Ireland), Austria (with Team USA) and Abu Dhabi/Dubai (with Team Luxembourg, and, yes, my heritage is some 75 percent Luxembourgish). I hope to be with Team Luxembourg again for upcoming Special Olympics World Games in Russia and in Germany.
For several years, I have also served as a mentor for a wonderful young man from the Bremerton area. He and his mom are deeply involved in Special Olympics, and being around them, or just staying in touch with them, has made me a better person.
Before each Special Olympics event, the venue rings with these words: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Why do I volunteer with Special Olympics? That is why.
I began volunteering with the Make A Wish Foundation of Washington and Alaska in 1997. Apart from being a dad and a gramps (of seven magnificent and very kind grandkids) and my involvement with Special Olympics, volunteering with Wish young people and their families is the most rewarding experience of my life. I ask myself before each Wish, and then throughout the Wish process: “What would I do, how would I act, if this Wish recipient were my own kid, or my own grandkid?”
I have been blessed to serve as a volunteer on several hundred Wishes. Each Wish is uniquely special and meaningful, and I treasure each Wish opportunity. Many of those Wishes (including one Wish which we started in October 2020) have been for Gig Harbor young people. Many Wish kids and their families stay at Seattle Ronald McDonald House. I am a volunteer van driver at the House, taking families on shopping trips and sports and entertainment events. And the van driver gets to go to most of those destinations, too, of course. Good deal.
I have volunteered for many years in Kissimmee, Florida, at a wonderful place called Give Kids The World (GKTW). GKTW is not formally related to Make A Wish, but most Wish kids (and their families) who go to Orlando stay at GKTW. Each family gets a villa, free and wondrous food, and five to seven days of love and admiration from the GKTW staff and volunteers.
My ultimate Wish is that the day soon dawns when we will never again have to grant another Wish. Until that day arrives, however, I will faithfully follow that advice from my mom and Mr. Wesley.
My older sister is a valiant and two-time survivor of breast cancer. In her honor, and in honor of so many others, I volunteer in a number of capacities for Susan G. Komen Puget Sound. We need a cure, and one will be found, I am certain.
My older brother battled long and so very bravely against leukemia. Spurred on by his love and his example (and those of his immediate family), I devote a lot of love and a lot of time to the Pacific Northwest Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
The motto of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (now called Child Advocate) program is “I stand for the child.” I have volunteered with our local program, headquartered at Remann Hall in Tacoma, for well over two decades. As a happily retired lawyer, I thoroughly appreciate the opportunity to volunteer my time to do my best to help the judicial and administrative systems to function in a fair and timely manner to help kids.
I have been able to take lessons learned in Gig Harbor far and wide. Just after I retired on January 1, 2011, I spent a month in McLeod Ganj/Dharamsala in Northern India, hard by the Himalayas. That is the home of His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama, and the Tibetans In Exile. We renovated schools and taught English to Buddhist monks. I have visited Romania several times, where we volunteer with orphans, abandoned kids, and kids in perilous circumstances. Several young people whom I met in Romania had hydrocephalus. Those kids stole my heart, and I am now a volunteer for, and strong supporter of, the Hydrocephalus Association.
A young man I served as a Child Advocate at Remann Hall is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe. Inspired by him, I have volunteered at the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana. Spurred on by those experiences, I am now a regular volunteer at Tribal Canoe Journeys throughout the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.
Throughout all of these experiences, the constant in my life has been, and remains, Gig Harbor.
Q. Why would you encourage others to take the time out of their lives to volunteer?
A. So, why volunteer? In addition to John Wesley, I reflect daily on lessons taught to us by singer/songwriter/poet John Prine. We lost him to COVID-19 far, far too soon early this year, but he teaches us why we should volunteer (and why we should always be kind and compassionate) in It’s a Big Old Goofy World: “Make a baby laugh, give the world a smile, and if you take an inch, give them back a mile.”