Breaking the cycle of poverty through education

Janet E. Harman was looking for a legacy to leave her children, Kevin, David and Kelly, in a way that involved giving back and community service. This led Harman to found KDK-Harman Foundation, named for her three children, in 2004.

While Harman's children are very fortunate with their finances, she wants them to focus on how to make the world a better place—not on what they can do for themselves, she said.

KDK-Harman Foundation focuses on a subset of charities designed to break the cycle of poverty through education while promoting a culture of giving excellence.

By supporting nonprofits and school districts in seven Central Texas counties, the foundation aims to increase 21st century skills and give low-income students access to quality careers.

The foundation centers on three initiatives to help achieve this goal: projects that focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and integrating technology into teaching and learning; improving the quality of and access to out-of-school time programs; and enabling and supporting systems-level change and collaboration to support an excellent education for all Central Texas students.

"I just really believe that education is the key to everything," Harman said. "If people can support themselves—and the way they do that is to get education to get a good job in a high demand field and make a living wage—we can break that cycle."

For the first few years KDK-Harman would help many education-related projects, but in 2011 decided to refine its grant making, KDK-Harman Executive Director Jennifer Esterline said.

"When you are working with a $1 million grants budget a year and a $25 million endowment and are working to break the cycle of poverty through education, which is a huge undertaking, you really have to think about impact and how that money is best spent," Esterline said. "That is why we decided to focus on the three [initiatives]."

While the foundation focuses on three aspects of education to improve upon, out-of-school activities is a top priority.

"When you think of out-of-school time, you think of Boys and Girls clubs, you think about basketball and snacks, safe places—not necessarily the closing of achievement gaps," Esterline said. "What we are saying is that you can do both [entertain and educate]."

That level of commitment is what KDK-Harman is known for, not just writing checks, but being engaged partners, Esterline said.

KDK is making a difference but doesn't have the resources to fill all of the education gaps, Esterline said.

"We are just the incubator, the innovator for pilot programs," Harman said. "We are not the answer; we are not the solution to education."

It is the out-of-school programs where lower income students fall behind their higher income counterparts, Esterline said. After-school programs are not discussed often when potential fixes to education gaps are brought up, she said.

"We are not just about breaking the cycle of poverty, but creating the cycle of giving," said Erica Ekwurzel, grantee consultant for KDK-Harman.

Next Generation of KDK-Harman

Kevin Sooch — Kevin is the eldest of Janet's children and has had an active role as junior board member since 2007. Kevin modeled best practices in philanthropy, including reviewing grant applications, attending site visits and participating in board grant decision making. Currently, Kevin is a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in electrical engineering.

David Sooch — In 2008, David began as a junior board member. David also served as a mentor for Austin youth programs such as Breakthrough Austin and First Tee Golf. This fall David will enter his junior year at the University of Michigan. His focus of study is industrial and operations Engineering.

Kelly Sooch — In addition to serving as a junior board member to KDK-Harman, Kelly has volunteered her time and talent to several Central Texas nonprofits. Her commitment to service transcends Texas boundaries and has led her to involvement in New York as a teacher's assistant at a Head Start program, relentless fundraising for charity:water, and humanitarian work in Haiti.

KDK-Harman Foundation, 1000 Westbank Drive, Bldg. 3, Austin, 328-9400,