A Madera girl’s quest to end poverty and share the love of God started with a walk down G Street in downtown Fresno.
Kaitlin Riffel was visiting her father at work – at that time, the Fresno Rescue Mission, a Christian shelter for the homeless and those in need.
“I had never seen poverty before. I was 8,” recalls Kaitlin, who is now 16. “I never realized there were people in the world who didn’t have a home or food. I knew there was something I had to do about that.”
At age 8, she started raising money to build a playground at Rescue the Children, a transitional living facility in Fresno for women and children in need.
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“It took me two years, but me and my sisters raised $365,” Kaitlin says. “We started small. We knew we wanted to do something to make a difference.”
That sum jumped to $80,000 the following year after the girls teamed with friends and increased their fundraising efforts, and the playground was installed in 2013. It inspired Kaitlin to found the kid-powered Kids on a Mission, incorporated as a nonprofit two years ago, that has helped hundreds of people living in poverty at home and abroad.
We knew that God was calling us to bigger things.
Kaitlin Riffel, age 16
The work overseas started when Kaitlin, then 13, visited El Salvador and saw people starving and families living in flimsy shelters made of cardboard and mud bricks.
“The rooms were smaller than my bedroom, but there would be eight people that were living in it,” Kaitlin recalls while sitting in her Fresno office of Kids on a Mission. “We also got to see the rivers that these people were drinking out of, and it was dirty, dirty water. We met a lot of people who were just completely in poverty.”
Kaitlin asked one boy how many siblings he had and was stunned by his reply: “Well, I have 13 brothers and sisters, but six have died from drinking dirty water.”
Providing clean drinking water for people living in poverty is now a major focus for Kids on a Mission. Children and adults on the mission teams dig wells and also help orphans by providing food and clothes, leading Bible studies and building homes. The projects are led by children that Kaitlin trains. The mission teams are small, usually 10 to 30 people.
“Being able to look these people in the face and see how much they were suffering but then to give them food – that’s life-changing for us,” Kaitlin says.
I saw how much mission trips can change a person’s life because they get to see the world from a completely different point of view.
Kaitlin Riffel, age 16
She’s led three Kids on a Mission trips: two to El Salvador and one to Costa Rica. Another Costa Rica trip is planned late this year. She chose these countries in part because of connections her family has with people already doing charity work there, including partner organization Loving with Mercy Ministry.
In the U.S., Kids on a Mission has donated backpacks, school supplies and zoo passes to children in need in North Fork and Kerman, and as far away as Chicago, through a partnership with Convoy of Hope.
Kaitlin’s faith in God motivates the work.
“In Matthew 25, it says what you do to the least of these you do for me,” she says, quoting from the Bible.
Another Bible verse – 1 Timothy 4:12 – also had a big impact.
“It says don’t let others look down on you because you are young,” Kaitlin says, “but set an example for the believers – and in love and faith and purity. … You go out and be a good example to other people. It doesn’t really matter if they think you can do it, you just go out and do it.”
In a world that seems a little bit hard and disconnected, how refreshing it is to know we have young people in our community who live their life through giving.
Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino about Kaitlin Riffel
Kids on a Mission is in the process of giving children larger leadership roles within the organization now that Kaitlin is a junior in high school. Kaitlin – the organization’s founding director – wants Kids on a Mission to continue after she graduates but says she may not play as big of a role in the organization if she moves away for college.
Her parents – Brent Riffel, a development director for Convoy of Hope, and Lorinda Riffel, executive director of Kids on a Mission – believe in Kaitlin and the power of children working together to do good.
“Her dad and I believe that kids can make a difference,” Lorinda says. “That’s why we tried to help her along in doing what God has called her to do.”
Kaitlin also has the support of Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino, who recognized her charity work with a Superintendent’s Superstar award in January.
“This young lady just understands that by giving and having a giving heart, she’s not only changing the hearts of people in this community, she’s changing the world,” Yovino says.
Kaitlin likens the charity and ministry work of Kids on a Mission to planting seeds.
“We were planting the seeds in their heart,” she says. “We might not see that produce fruit, but we know that we planted it there.”