Kai Owens isn’t your typical 13 year-old. Not just because he’s an active, polite, and energetic teen, but because he’s been operating a charitable project out of his home for the last two years – for children suffering from the same eye disease that he is.
In 2013, Kai was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, or RP. Over the last few years, his eyesight has deteriorated tremendously and his family has had to make significant adjustments to their lifestyle as the diagnosis has become a reality, but that hasn’t slowed Kai down a bit. Instead, Kai uses his support network to connect with other less fortunate children with visual impairments.
I sat down with Kai and his family recently after they took a trip to Orlando, Florida to deliver blankets to children with visual impairments at the Florida School for the Blind, an initiative that now has international bandwidth.
His mom, Kim, says it all started when Kai was first diagnosed with RP at age 10. The nighttime was substantially more stressful for Kai because he struggled to see and to ease his anxiousness, he would surround himself with stuffed animals and blankets- essentially building a nest. Kai shared with his parents that he felt bad for other people with visual impairments who didn’t have soft things to surround themselves with, so he got to thinking.
At the ripe age of 11, Kai launched a collection drive to obtain stuffed animals and blankets. In a huge success, Kai collected over 70 items after the first request and with a the help of a church, Kai’s collection surged to 200+ donations. His first project was a partnership with the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon. Kai says after a tour of the school and seeing how bare the dorm rooms and classrooms were, he knew that’s where he wanted to deliver the soft items.
Kai cheerfully shared the story of the first delivery, beaming:
“We went around the school delivering, but one of the kids [mostly pre-school age and kindergarten] jumped in the basket and another girl pulled out a pillow from the bag, put it on the floor and laid on it right there. She claimed it on the spot. They were just really happy.”
His soon-to-be high school graduate brother, Cash, and their dad, Chris, a Bulloch County high school teacher, both shared the the same cheerful sentiment when talking about the first delivery in Macon.
Since then, Kai’s Comfort’s has partnered with 180 Fitness in Statesboro, Pladd Dottt Music in Statesboro, Bohemia in Brooklet, Contours Express in Brooklet, and other small businesses in Bulloch County who volunteered to serve as “drop off locations.” The project has also narrowed its focus to only ‘new’ blankets and throws, most of which are soft and highly textured. Now, he relies on his Facebook page, Kai’s Comfort’s, and the social media of his parents to get the word out when a collection is underway. Because of that, the project has helped children in Utah, (thanks, in part, to a boy scout troop who made blankets and donated them to the Utah School for the Blind in Kai’s name), Arizona, around much of the southeast, and even into Europe where he knows a few children that have been diagnosed with RP. His network grows every day, something that helps his family as well. “It helps me to realize that there’s a lot of other moms in the same situation as me and they’re more apt to contact me than they were before. They’re in the same situation and we can figure out ways to work through things together. It’s still hard for all of us, but this has allowed us to find joy.”
The project is not an official non-profit, so everything Kai’s Comfort’s does is out-of-pocket for the Owen’s family. Kim says, “We’ve really just been doing it because it gives us something to focus on and it gives Kai something to focus on. It also makes us feel so good to go in and give them to the other kids. It’s helped Kai build a network of kids dealing with the same issues and that he isn’t alone.” But that hasn’t stopped other members of the community from helping. Kai once received a 6-foot-alligator for a donation and it would have cost nearly $100 to ship to it’s final destination, but after hearing Kai’s story, the UPS store manager shipped the alligator for free.
On the day I visited, Kai had just received an envelope full of ‘Thank You’ notes from his visit in Florida. Some were in large print, some were in braille – something Kai is quickly learning himself, thanks to one of his teachers, Mrs. Gloria Jennings. He says the school system is part of the reason he’s been so successful – and of course, his classmates and teachers have all donated to and help spread the message of Kai’s Comforts.
When I asked Kai if he wanted the project to grow, he had this to say, “I want to stay a part of it. Definitely. I don’t want it to be so big that it’s some sort of huge corporation, but I would like to see it become bigger nationally so more visually impaired people can benefit from it.”
Kai’s Comfort’s will begin collecting for the Fall initiative soon. Check their Facebook page for how to get involved and help.