A Mission Born from Experience
We sat down with our CEO, Corey Gordon, to hear the incredible story of his journey to Kids In Need Foundation.
Interviews like this typically start with the basics, but we understand that you’re not even sure how old you are. Could you tell us why that is?
CG: Sure. You would think that would be an easy question to answer, but I have no birth records and don’t know my official birthdate. In fact, the birth date I celebrate was just arbitrarily given to me!
I was an American GI baby born in South Korea and abandoned at birth. I don’t know the whereabouts of either parent. In a culture that really prides itself on its heritage and family lineage—even today—there’s a lot of ostracism for children like me. It’s quite possible that I may not have even gone to a hospital to be born because of the social stigma that it would have caused.
How then did you come to the U.S.?
CG: My earliest memories are of an older individual, an older woman, who apparently had been my caregiver. Obviously as an infant, you can’t raise yourself. My understanding is that dementia or senility set in, and this individual, this woman, died. After that, I was pretty much left to fend for myself on the streets of South Korea.
Then, apparently, somebody told an orphanage in the area that was supported by American NGOs that there was a GI baby running around on the streets. Some of the workers from the orphanage came out, found me, and took me to the orphanage, straight from the streets. From there, I was adopted [by a Minnesota couple] and brought to the US.
Could you talk about some of the more challenging adjustments that you faced?
CG: Oh gosh, what wasn’t challenging? I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know the culture. I didn’t know the people, I didn’t know anything about America! Even the things that we take for granted, just basic things, like the refrigerator that’s stocked with food . . . it was just such a novel concept. I would actually “steal” food from the refrigerator and hide it around the house and in my bedroom to hoard it for the future. I didn’t know that there would ever be food that would be a constant source. Everything just struck me [as a challenge].
Attending school for the first time must have been overwhelming. As you grew more accustomed to school, what did you like best about it?
CG: When I was in Korea, I wasn’t eligible to go to school. School was for the Korean children, so even though I was old enough, I never went to school there. When I came here, there was still uncertainty about my age, but I also didn’t know the language or any basics of reading or writing. They started me off right away in kindergarten, even though I was a lot bigger and seemed to be older than kindergarten age, just to kind of get me acclimated.
The first week or couple weeks of school were actually pretty horrific for me. I actually thought I had been brought all the way to America and was being placed right back into another orphanage. It seemed like I had been left behind when my adoptive mom turned around and walked out the door. I remember trying to run away from the school, but the adults caught up with me and wouldn’t let me go. I felt like I had been rejected or had blown it with my new family already. Here they were taking me to the orphanage and dropping me off.
But, over time I learned school was not a bad thing, that it was actually a good thing. The school I went to was close enough to walk, so I didn’t have to go on a bus. Having my mom drop me off and then come back and pick me up each day slowly ingrained in me that this was just a new development that I had to obviously understand and learn.
Obviously, you did well enough in school considering where you are in your life and all the opportunities that you’ve had. How did your education opportunities shape you, both personally and vocationally?
CG: In many ways I truly do view America as being the land of opportunity. For somebody who had no idea of so much of what I encountered, school was really kind of a gateway—even though I didn’t understand it at first—to the doors of opportunity. All the basics of reading, writing, and being able to gain an education allowed me an opportunity to actually have a life of potential.
Once I understood the significance [of school] and the value of it, I started really learning, I had an insatiable curiosity and an insatiable appetite to learn. And so I just charged through those doors of opportunity because I realized that I just couldn’t get enough of this wonderful, great world of amazing dreams and things that you could potentially pursue and become regardless of how you started off in life. Once that clicked, as I was going through school, it was the motivator for me to charge through those doors of opportunity and to pursue life to the fullest.
Last year you took on the position of CEO at Kids in Need Foundation. As you accepted that position, what made you most excited about the mission that you were committing to lead?
CG: I’ve been blessed to have worked in non-profits both the agency side, where I was working with a lot of non-profit clients, and also internally within some significant non-profit organizations. With that broad background of great organizations and great missions, there were a couple things that really excited me about the Kids In Need Foundation.
Number one, it’s based here in the Twin Cities, so I don’t have to travel to go to work. So much of my career, even in non-profit, I did have a fair amount of travel. Here, I’m able to work in my own backyard, but with a national organization.
Number two, KINF is very focused on underserved, under resourced students. Going back to my personal background, knowing how significant that early childhood education and continuing through school was for me, I saw how education could be such a tremendous equalizer and can give kids a level footing—if they’re given the opportunity.
In this role, we’re able to work with students all across the country, working with their teachers to help equip them to ensure that, regardless of what kind of background they come from or what kind of community they come from, they have an equal opportunity to achieve their potential. Again, we’re using education as the gateway to the doors to that opportunity for these kids.
What motivates you as you lead? Who are you thinking about on a daily basis when you think about why you do what you do?
CG: I would say the biggest motivator for me is knowing that each day, we can practically impact the lives of kids and students and teachers across the country.
Education is a huge ecosystem. It’s very complex. There are a lot of systems and processes and politics and bureaucracy. It’s a huge, huge environment, with a lot of significant challenges. I try to look at things practically speaking. Each day, what can we do to help ensure that these kids have an opportunity [to succeed]?
Some of the big challenges will take years and years to resolve, but in the meantime, I don’t want these kids and these teachers to be the collateral damage, if you will. What we do is very fundamental and maybe not very glamorous or sexy, but practically speaking, it’s something that allows us to help these kids be in school and stay in school.
So, even if it’s at the most basic level, we’re able to help these kids to achieve their potential today versus waiting for all these other systems and things to work through the whole bureaucracy of the ecosystem. That’s what really motivates me and drives me: the fact that we can still practically help today. It’s not something that’s just going to happen overnight, it’s a process, to be able to gain an education and live up to the potential that these children have.
Since the mission of KINF is so connected to getting supplies into the hands of students who need it the most, could you talk specifically about how having the tools you needed helped your journey?
CG: I started out with nothing, right? When I came to the US, I didn’t bring anything with me beyond the clothes that I had on my back. And because I was so riddled with disease and malnutrition, the clothes that I wore over even had to be burned. I literally had nothing.
So, coming to Minnesota and being in a middle class suburb, I was living alongside kids that had everything that was possibly needed. I remember getting my first everything: first pencil, first notebook, first on and on and on, all the basic items that kids need for school. It was amazing! I’d never had anything in my life before. And now I’m getting all this stuff that helped me not only just go to school but also to really fit in with the other kids.
I’d always been the outcast, and I’d always been the outsider. Now, maybe I still acted differently and looked differently from the other kids, but I was able to be like one of the other kids in the classroom. That definitely played a big part in not only helping me to assimilate into the environment in the neighborhood and the culture, but it also helped in terms of some of the psychological and social stigma aspects. I was no longer the outcast. You could look at me and I was just one of the other kids, just like everybody else who was in that classroom.
For young Corey and for the students we serve now: it’s more than just a backpack.