Kit Steinkellner
November 03, 2015 11:28 am

Recently, I had the enormous privilege of speaking with Kenzie Hall, the 17-year-old founder and CEO of Brat Pack 11, an organization that grants wishes to the children of wounded and fallen soldiers. Think of it as “Make a Wish” for military brats. I was blown away by this kind and insightful teen who uses her empathy and generosity as straight-up superpowers to change the lives of military brats like herself for the better. Without further ado, here’s Kenzie:

HelloGiggles: So, tell me how you came up with the idea for Brat Pack 11.

Kenzie Hall: So I was 11 years old when my dad deployed to Afghanistan, and it was an incredibly rough year for my family and me. My sister and I were constantly worrying — she was only five years old at the time — and my mom realized how much it was stressing us out, because we were just filled with such negative thoughts that something was going to happen to our dad. And so my parents discussed the idea of maybe that year doing something positive. And so they decided that we were going to be able to live out a dream, and it could be anything we wanted.

So I talked to my sister, and I was like, you know, “Do you maybe want to do acting classes? Like, do you think you would maybe want to pursue acting?” And she was five years old and she looked up to me, and she was like, “Yeah, that’d be fun!” So we started acting classes and acting was always something that I wanted to do since I was five years old, and it turned out to be one of the best escapes and an amazing outlet. So I asked my mom, “Why can’t other military kids going through similar situations, or even worse ones, have a chance to live out a dream?” And she didn’t know the answer.

So about a week later I received a phone call from my dad letting us know that a soldier he had deployed with, CPT Rob Yllescas was injured by an IUD. He was hospitalized for about a month, and eventually passed away, leaving behind two little girls, Julie and Eva. And they were only six and two years old at the time, and I just, I kept thinking about what it would be like to lose my own dad, and it broke my heart, and I really wanted to do something for them, but I didn’t know what. So I slept on it, and I woke up the next morning, and I was like “Can we send them to Disneyland?” Do you think that’s a possibility? Every kid loves Disneyland!” And she was like “I mean, we can try!”

So I went to all my friends, I called my family members up, I went to local businesses, we raised up the money and we got ahold of their mom and we told her we wanted to send them to Disneyland, and so we were able to do that. When we got the pictures back, I saw how happy it made them, and it wasn’t just that they got to go to Disneyland and eat as much cotton candy as their hearts desired; it was a way to let them know that their [family’s] sacrifices hadn’t been forgotten and that we’re grateful for all that they’ve done for our country’s freedom. So immediately I wanted to continue doing that for other military kids and that’s how Brat Pack 11 was born.

HG: What have been some of your favorite wishes to grant?

KH: Ooooh. There’s so many. There are special in their own way. We just had one where a girl named Alyssa Sheridan, who’s 18-years-old, lost her stepdad, six weeks before his [biological] daughter was born, and her dream was to pursue her singing career. So I immediately e-mailed The Voice, and got ahold of casting and production, and she was able to audition for The Voice and got a blind audition on the show

HG: WOW.

KH: Yeah, that was really cool, I was able to go to her blind audition. She unfortunately did not make it, but it was an experience of a lifetime, because immediately after having this audition, you know, she was going to go to nursing school and continue nursing, but after this audition, she was like, “I have to pursue singing. This just validated for me that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” And the fact that I could help someone discover that is just awesome in itself. So I think that was one of my favorite ones, for sure.

We actually granted another one for Julia and Eva as well, just because I wanted to do something else for them, because they’re older, and Julia is 13 now, and she’s just understanding that her dad’s not going to be around for these special moments, so I emailed their mom again and asked, “You know, is there something else that they would want, I just feel like it would be awesome to grant them another wish.” And she was like, “Well, you don’t have to do anything, but they love Taylor Swift and the show Girl Meets World but you don’t need to do anything else for us.” And I said, “Let me, I have to do something.” So eventually I was able to get my hands on meet and greets and concert tickets for Taylor Swift’s concert in San Diego, and I got in touch with Girl Meets World production, and they sent me these dates to where we could visit the set, and they were like, “These are the best dates to come,” and one of the days just happened to be the day before the Taylor Swift concert, and I was like, “The stars are aligning, this is perfect.”

So we flew them out, they came from Nebraska, and we told the girls we were filming a campaign video and needed their help. So we went to the radio station KSUN in San Diego the next morning and revealed that they were getting to meet Taylor Swift, and that they were going to get to go to her concert. And then they were freaking out already, so we went to breakfast, and then at breakfast we revealed, “Hey, since tomorrow you’re going to the Taylor Swift concert, we have another surprise for today. We’re going to a real-live TV set.” And they’re like “Well, what TV set are we going to?” And I’m like “Well, we can’t say anything yet, you’ll just have to wait and find out.” And so we get to the studio, and the tour guide comes out and she’s leading us down the hallway, and Ava immediately sees a giant Girl Meets World poster and she’s freaking out already, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to see what happens when they see the cast.” And so we open a door and there’s Rowan Blanchard and Corey Fogelmanis, and then we open another door and there’s Ben Savage and the rest of the cast, and [the girls] were freaking out and they got to tour the set and watch rehearsals and it was really awesome.

HG: What have you learned from running Brat Pack 11?

KH: I’ve learned that a lot of people don’t like to listen to teenagers and kids. Yeah, I’ve learned to have a backbone and really stand my ground. I’ve had people almost try to kind of warp Brat Pack 11 into their own image, and, you know, and I was really grateful to have such great guidance from so many people, but I really had to make sure to tell them, you know, “This is what I want Brat Pack 11 to be, I really believe in this.” And I just learned not to let people walk all over you, so it’s been a learning process and I’ve learned how to run a team, I run Brat Pack 11 on my own. It’s been awesome.

HG: What do you wish people knew about military families, in particular, the children of military families?

KH: Well, personally, I think military brats get kind of forgotten in a sense, you know, because we’re so focused on soldiers and their wives, which is completely great, don’t get me wrong, I love that there are so many organizations out there for our soldiers and our veterans. But, you know, kids can get PTSD too. Military brats can be really affected by whatever their parent comes home with, or if their parent doesn’t come home at all, and I really believe that we need to make sure that we create a network of support for our military brats, and let them know, “Hey, your voice matters, you haven’t been forgotten, we’re here for you.” It’s really important that our military brats know, and that America knows, that they’re important and that they matter.

Related:

What it’s really like to be a woman in the military

What it’s like to adjust to life after the military

(Images via Brat Pack 11)

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