Q+A with Kristel Harlacher, Lover of Humanity + Literary Enthusiast

Kristel is the type of person who goes leaps and bounds out of her way just to make your day a little brighter. Her positive, loving energy is infectious, and she is somehow always ready with the most fitting reference, be it from one of her favorite classic novels or even Mean Girls (that’s a classic too, right?). She expends way more energy on others than on herself, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Kristel has spent over a decade of her life devoting her time to numerous charitable organizations, including Relay for Life and The Amani Children’s Foundation and New Life Home Trust. She is currently pursuing a position teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Southeast Asia.

The Basics

  • Age: eeek, 24! But I feel 20.
  • Location: Chapel Hill, NC
  • Education: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Field of Interest: Social justice, literature and dreaming
  • What Inspired You Today? I had a crazy, stressful and long day today. When I finally had a chance to breathe, it was around midnight. I walked outside, laid down on the pavement and just looked up. Speckled throughout the dark sky, there were a few bright shining stars. Seeing those stars reminded me that though some moments in our lives will be stressful, there is always beauty around us – whether it be in the simplicity of a few shining stars or the complexity of our universe.  We just have to slow down and not get caught up in the little things.
  • What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? I am a very compassionate and empathetic person. While this may be my favorite thing about myself, it also happens to be my undoing, anxiety-wise.

Questions + Answers

You graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in English Literature and have an insatiable reading habit. What do you look for in a novel? What is your favorite book of all-time?

Hmm, let’s see. Well, I love to scribble in the margins. I love to feel like a text is simultaneously involving me in a story but that it’s also challenging enough for me to have to take notes. This may sound wild, but I have to like the way the book feels in my hands. I believe that while reading, a novel/short story/poem has an intimate influence on our thoughts and feelings, so I have to feel comfortable with it, both mentally and physically.

My favorite book of all-time? That’s too hard! Obviously, there are always favorites in classics like Beloved, The Sun Also Rises, and Lolita. However, recently, I have really enjoyed the writings of a couple contemporary authors: Zadie Smith, Alice Munro, and Charles Bukowski. If you haven’t read This is Where I Leave You: A Novel by Jonathan Tropper and A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, I highly recommend both.

You’ve been working with non-profits for over a decade. Was there a moment when you realized what you were doing was really making an impact?

As a service worker, I think that it is crucial to identify the moment when you realize that a non-profit organization is truly bettering the lives of those around us.

During my time in Kenya, my main responsibility was to advocate for the Kenyan orphans. My team and I worked side by side with each orphanage’s social worker to ensure that everything was in line for an adoption to proceed smoothly, whether that meant going to the magistrate and asking for guardianship, or writing a comprehensive psychosocial report to ensure that the parents matched were the best fit for each child.

As a result of this intense, hands-on involvement, during my first summer in Kenya I was a part of a baby rescue at New Life Home Trust. After a long day, the directors of the home and the nurse began a welcoming celebration, which included the naming of this precious three-pound infant. It was in this moment that I realized that The Amani Children’s Foundation and New Life Home Trust was providing more to these children than just shelter and food. They were providing a loving home and an interim family to each and every child. That is truly something to celebrate! This is obviously greater than the impact of just one person, but I was blessed to be a part of such a beautiful moment.

Furthermore, not all of the children we place with new families are babies or infants. The moment when a small child who knows and understands what is going on meets his new parents is a true testament to the sheer beauty that surrounds us.

How has your non-profit work influenced how you perceive the world?

As a teenager, I had this naive fairy-tale notion of the world and people around me. My experiences have not darkened me, but rather, adjusted my expectations of people to a realistic level: no one is perfect and that is okay! There are awful things happening every single day and as a service worker, one might be too familiar with these things. But we cannot let this knowledge and these experiences shape our world negatively, or nothing will ever change. When I graduated from high school, I told myself that I might not be able to save the world, but if I could make one person smile every single day, I would be doing okay.

While working in kenya, you filled many roles for the children, including advocate, caretaker, friend, and mentor. Conversely, what did the children have to teach you?

Before my experiences in Kenya, I never knew the capacity of my own love. I had only ever loved and cared about my family and friends. These children taught me that our hearts are capable of so much more and that my love for service could fuel so many great things!

What have you learned from working in these kenyan orphanages that others should know?

New Life Home Trust, the Kenyan orphanage that I worked alongside, sets the bar for orphanages and health facilities in Kenya, so their experiences are far from destitute. Although these children do not have our definition of a traditional family, they are surrounded by caretakers, social workers, and nurses who although not related to them, love them unconditionally until they are able to be matched with the right family.

There were many times when I actually thought that American children and parents could learn something from the family model that New Life provides for these orphans. Sometimes I feel like we are so focused on our own lives that we forget that those around us can offer aid, support, and guidance. Like the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and New Life creates a communal family where everyone is working together to raise these little humans who were not necessarily dealt the best cards in life.

Who Inspires You?

I feel like I am inspired every single day by the amazing feats of my friends and family, although four friends in particular have been inspiring me with their creative, intelligent, and whimsical souls: April Harrison, Michelle Zayed, Zuri Milanzi, and Alex McClelland.

+ Know any other young PHILANTHROPISTS WITH HEARTs OF GOLD? Tell us who we should feature next!
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