ItStartsWith.Us has been live for about three weeks now, and I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with a number of interesting people. During that time, I’ve had the most correspondence with a gentleman named Kenny Kramm. This is his story.I met Kenny on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @centerpet (more on that later). I honestly can’t remember what question, comment or link started off that first conversation . . . but such is the nature of Twitter. Lots of quick little exchanges here and there with people, many of them strangers. Most of them you never hear from again, but sometimes you get to make a new friend.
After chatting for a while, it became apparent to me that Kenny was very interested in making the world a better place for other people, so I began asking him more questions about his background and why he had the outlook that he did. Here’s what I learned.
At age 29, Kenny had been married to his wife Shelley for a number of years. They had a three-year-old daughter named Sarah, with another baby on the way. Sarah had been born very early and battled through some early medical issues, so it wasn’t a big surprise to the Kramms when their second daughter, Hadley, was born at 28 weeks, weighing only 3 pounds 10 ounces. Even with the low birth weight, however, she was doing fine and relatively healthy.
Unfortunately, during her extended stay in the hospital, a night nurse mistakenly gave her another child’s medicine. This caused a severe bilateral brain hemorrhage, which resulted in a seizure disorder and cerebral palsy. Kenny and his wife decided not to sue because they didn’t believe there were any ill intentions, and they didn’t want to relive the entire ordeal in court again. Their lives would never be the same again, however. Hadley never recovered, and has spent her days in the company of therapists, doctors, and surgeries. She’s been confined to a wheelchair for her entire life, and she can’t speak or take care of herself.
That’s the sad part of the story. But the rest of it is really, really good.
As an infant, Hadley suffered from seizures, and required four doses of medicine each day to prevent them. For Kenny and Shelley, this became a painful hours-long ritual when Hadley refused to swallow the medicine due to the unappealing taste. They were never quite sure how much she actually got before she spit the rest out, and they were also afraid of giving her too much, so Hadley ended up in the ER with seizures many more times than she should have.
Kenny worked for his father in their family-owned pharmacy at the time, and one day they decided to try sweetening Hadley’s medicine with some of the flavorings used by candy manufacturers. After many rounds of experimentation, they found the combinations that worked well, and Hadley started taking her medicine without a fight. Kenny wondered how many other families were going through this kind of personal battle every day, and believed he could make a big difference in their lives by providing good-flavored medicine for children.
Kenny had never started a company before, but the company he founded, FlavorX, soon became a multi-million dollar business devoted to personal service, fair prices, and improving the lives of families with sick kids.
You can read more about the business aspect of Kenny’s story here, when Inc. Magazine did a front-page feature on him in 2003.
Kenny has since sold FlavorX, leaving it in good hands, and moved on to his latest endeavor: Center Pet Pharmacy. With this business, he’s taking the same idea of improving the taste of common medicines, but applying it to pets. In an email to me last week, Kenny said this:
It was a big jump going from a big company (that you began as a startup) to a startup once again. I had to basically start all over again, but I felt it was the right thing to do. I feel like I have helped many animals live longer, happier lives due to easy administration of medication, which has indirectly helped many people who see these four-legged friends as their children; they love them and would do anything for them. In allowing them to live longer happier lives I am making many people happy also.
Hadley’s medical situation was the catalyst that drove Kenny to dedicate his professional life to the betterment of others, but that’s not where Hadley’s influence ended. In fact, it was just the beginning.
Shelley Kramm was also moved to improve the quality of life for Hadley and thousands of other kids with physical disabilities. Here’s an excerpt from an article in The Washingtonian, from which she won an award in 2005 for making the region a better place to live.
At the playground, Sarah ran straight from the car; Hadley’s wheelchair stuck in the mulch. One day tears rolled down her face as she watched her sister play. “I couldn’t stand it anymore,” their mother says. “I told Kenny, ‘I’m going to build a playground where all the kids can play together.’ ”
She talked to therapists, consulted children and park builders, battled objections, and got the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to donate an acre in Potomac. She lobbied the Maryland General Assembly, the county, and a fast-food chain for funds; found a landscape architect to donate services; and asked vendors about customized equipment.
Hadley’s Park opened in 1999 with a castle, a frontier village, and a pirate ship. Signs used Braille and symbols. The grade was flat, the surface firm but yielding. Shelley started getting calls from around the country: “I decided maybe this one isn’t enough.”
She worked with the developer of Dulles Town Center on a second park. As three more were built at schools and another in Talbot County, Maryland, Kramm traveled to speak out about the need for playgrounds. “Through Hadley, so many other lives have been changed,” she says–kids who welcome disabled peers; disabled parents finally able to play with their children.
Sarah is off to college this fall. Kramm began shutting down her nonprofit last year but is proud that it inspired some 250 playgrounds nationwide.
I’d like to stress that Shelley had never raised money before, and the first fully accessible playground she spearheaded cost over a million dollars to build. People told her that it was a crazy idea and a waste of time, but she stuck with her dream and fulfilled her goal to make the world a better place for Hadley and others like her.
You can hear more from Shelley on her blog, where she discusses raising a family with a disabled daughter and how to have the strength and courage to make something positive out of a tough situation. (For a simple and stunning metaphor of what this is like, read the short “Welcome to Holland” post on the site. It blew me away. Also note that names are changed on her blog for privacy reasons.)
Hadley’s legacy continues with Sarah Kramm, who recently won the title of Miss Continental Teen America, and spent her senior year of high school traveling around the country speaking about disability awareness to thousands of people at charity events and fundraisers. She also visited hospitals where she was able to interact with sick children and brighten their days.
I am absolutely amazed at what this family has done over the past 20 years. Each one of them has taken their personal, difficult situation and used it as an opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives around them. They are quite literally changing the world. How many thousands of lives have been touched as a result of the kind and generous use of their time and talents?
In one of my talks with Kenny, I brought up what I knew would be a difficult subject. I mentioned how I had heard Matt Mooney talk about the loss of his son, and how he would give back all the good that had come of it to hold his little boy in his arms once more. I asked Kenny how that would apply in his life at this point. What if he could trade everything that his family has accomplished so far to get a healthy Hadley? Here’s what he said:
I would trade in a heartbeat the experience for Hadley being a normal child — being able to do what all other kids do. To speak as others speak (I would really love to hear what she has to say after all these years). I would want her to graduate high school, go to the prom, go to college, get married, have children, etc.
But the good that has come out of her situation is one that changed the world and one that will allow her to have her own legacy in the future. If I traded her disabilities for a normal life she would be another child . . . I always wonder what kind. But she would not be Hadley, the happy kid who loves everybody and whose innocence is so beautiful and pure, there is nothing that can spoil it. Hadley is a beautiful inspiration to us and we love her just the way she is.
If someday something happens and gives her the ability to be normal I would jump at it, but for now I know that if I mourn the fact that Hadley is not like all the other kids, I will never be free to enjoy the wonderful, beautiful things about her.
What a fantastic answer. Kenny told me in another conversation that there is a saying he always tries to live by: “Live your life so that your children can tell their children you not only stood for something; but you acted on it.” It’s very obvious that he’s doing this on a daily basis — talking the talk, but also walking the walk.
Thinking about Kenny’s situation in conjunction with Matt’s made me realize something: It’s not what happens to us in this life, but how we choose to respond to it that counts. In the face of personal tragedy, it’s easy to fall into a negative outlook on life, but if you can remain positive and persevere through your trials, you can accomplish great things. The bad will still be bad, and nothing can change that, but in that same vein, nothing can change the good you produced out of it either. And that is certainly worth something.
When I was a teenager at Marquette University High School, our creed was “Men for Others.” It’s something I’m always striving for, and I never really feel like I get there. But I can tell you this: I appreciate and admire what I see in Kenny’s life, and I know that if I can accomplish even a small percentage of what he’s been able to do with his giving attitude, I’ll be doing just fine.
We all will.
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