What The World Can Learn From This Small Kansas Town

“The Biggest Little Town of its Size!”

Jamie Schwandt May 22, 2017
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“The Biggest Little Town of its Size!” Like many towns, Kensington, Kansas has its own unique slogan, which perfectly symbolizes this small farming community of less than 500 people.

Like many former residents, previous coach and teacher Mr. Bruce VanLoenen holds fond memories of his time in Kensington. Recently, he explained the meaning behind the town slogan. The slogan was not a reference to population, but something unique. VanLoenen remarked, “[This] town has the biggest heart in Kansas.”

I was placed into a foster home in Kensington as a young child. I lived with five different families in this community during a four-year period. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this small Kansas town saved my life. Since my time in foster care, a large number of foster children have cycled through this small town. Quite a few of them have become successful as adults. Kensington has embraced foster care and it is firmly embedded into the town’s culture. It’s as if every resident pulls together to support each child.

It’s no secret the foster care system is failing miserably across the world. Yet, we never discuss those places where it is actually working and I figured out why. From the outside looking in, you might first think it’s because the system is not working anywhere, but you would be wrong. The reason is frustrating because it is so simple. Simply put, no one asks! No one ventures out to look. Even though quite a few foster children cycle through this small town, I would be surprised if the leaders in foster care even know where it is.

So, since none of them have went to see the miracle this small town brings, I will bring this small town to them. I will share how this town of less than 500 people is getting foster care right. Let me share with you why the world should know about this small town with the biggest heart.

Finding Your Hero and Goldbug Football

One simple word… Goldbugs!

During my time in Kensington, the pride of the community was the school mascot. Unless you were a Goldbug, it is hard to understand the uniqueness of it. Like so many small towns in Kansas, the school has consolidated with another and the mascot has changed, yet the community has not. As a child, being a starter on the Goldbug football team was the proudest moment of my life. I am still proud to be able to say that I am a Kensington Goldbug.

In 2015, I published Finding Your Hero, a children’s book that follows my life into foster care. The book is centered around the real-life superheroes in this community. Finding Your Hero demonstrates the magic this town possesses. Think about it. How many foster children grow up and write a book dedicated to the town they grew up in?

So, what exactly are they doing? I posed this question to the school superintendent, who was also a former foster parent. Mr. Jeff Yoxall said foster care is so interwoven into the community that many people lead and parent subconsciously. A foster child is just another Kensington kid and is treated no different than anyone else.

A small town with a Wiens mindset.

If there is one person who represents everything great about Kensington, it would be Mr. Don Wiens. Wiens is a teacher, coach, mentor, community leader, singer… he is Kensington! In a recent discussion with him, he mentioned something I was not expecting. In a small rural community, where the median age is close to 50, I didn’t expect to hear growth mindset being discussed. I am a huge advocate of practicing this skill, however, hearing Mr. Wiens discuss this made me wonder if he created it! Wiens has been in the community for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was teaching people about a growth mindset before it was called growth mindset!

What’s the secret?

So, you might be asking… what’s the secret? This one is so simple, yet hard to do. Before I answer this question, let me share with you one quote that says everything you need to know about Kensington, Kansas: “Don’t be upset with the results you didn’t get from the work you didn’t do.”

So, what’s the answer… hard work! There is no other explanation. This characteristic is essential to success and is the foundation for this community. Mr. Bruce VanLoenen and Mr. Mike Lecher (both teachers and coaches of mine) drilled the characteristic of hard work into me. They wanted their students and athletes to be conscientious, well-adjusted, and hard working. I was a challenge for them, but their extra time spent with me greatly impacted my life.

Nothing is impossible.

My Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) worker Mrs. Clella Hahn was an inspiration in my life. She taught me the importance of grit, courage, and critical thinking. Most importantly, she helped me realize nothing is impossible. Although Clella is no longer with us, she personally demonstrated the power of belief. She helped me understand that it doesn’t matter what circumstance you grew up in, you can make it through it. She didn’t stop there.

She taught me that we shouldn’t simply just make it through, but become better because of it. Clella inspired more than just foster children, she also inspired other people to volunteer. Clella was recognized as the CASA Volunteer of the Year. She inspired another former teacher of mine to become a CASA worker–Mrs. Annette Kennedy, who would also go on to be recognized as CASA Volunteer of the Year.

Additionally, we find success when we learn that failure is not a bad thing. There was no better person to teach me this than my former foster parent Mr. Bob Bearley (also a coach and teacher). Without even knowing it, he taught me the importance of understanding how to learn from failure and how to create a positive mindset. He taught me the key to happiness: a positive mindset and a strong faith in God.

“God is Good!” – Mr. Bob Bearley.

Learn to think for yourself.

One of the most profound lessons from my time in foster care was the importance of thinking for yourself. We should not blindly follow the thoughts and decisions of others. Foster children typically suffer from a term coined by American psychologist Martin Seligman: learned helplessness. However, it’s not just the child that suffers from this.

A former foster parent of mine shared with me that this is also prevalent among foster parents. She informed me that most foster parents fail to think and make decisions on their own. Delores Panter said foster parents will wait for a social worker to tell them what to do, rather than make their own decision. Delores made a huge impact on me. She is a phenomenal lady and someone you do not want upset with you! During my time living with Delores and her husband Fred, I think the social workers waited for her to make a decision before they acted!

Kensington, Kansas is a special place. Regarding foster care, they do it right, so much so that it blinded me. I used to write about foster care being an opportunity for a child. I used to believe foster care to be a chance for a child to have a better life. I no longer hold this mindset with the foster care system; however, this community demonstrated the potential foster care could bring to the life of a child.

This is why the world must know about and learn from this community. Similar to those mentioned earlier, people like Amber Hardacre, Melanie Elliott, Deidra Tweedy, Bob and Amy Bienhoff, Bob and Joan Beckman, Dan and Ginny Brake, and the entire community… they are creating magic through the power of a town with the world’s biggest heart!

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Jamie Schwandt

Dr. Jamie Schwandt (Ed.D.) is an author and former foster child. He is a TV show host, motivational speaker, lean six sigma master black belt, statistics professor, and a major in the U.S. Army. Dr. Schwandt is the author of the books Finding Your Hero (2015) and Succeeding as a Foster Child (2014). He is the host of the inspiring TV show Dreaming Big and is a fitness expert with a unique mindset for positive growth. You can find his published work here, his website, Facebook, and Twitter.


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