Smile Politely

Celebrating C-U Life: Kris Koester

You’ve hopefully met someone like him before. That individual who, right from the beginning, you know is going to be a friend for life. His genuine concern for others and unconditional compassion sometimes fly under the radar. But individuals who’ve leaned on him for support will never forget how he was there when they needed him. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of getting to know him, here’s a closer look at Kris Koester.

Kris was born in Urbana, Illinois. The son of loving parents, he credits them with influencing his passion for helping others. His father, a long time employee with Pepsi, has always been an active member at church. His father teaching Sunday School and his uncle engaging in mission trips are just a couple of the ways his family stay involved in the community. His mother, an accountant, provided Koester with a solid example of unconditional love throughout his life. Not always understanding his choices along his career path, his mother has still been diligent with supporting her son. Koester talks about how his mother initially worried about a choice he made to leave a good paying job to return to school. It was at his graduation this past May that she told him that she finally “got it.” Listening to her son speak at his graduation she realized just how passionate, involved, and committed he is to the community work he does.

Koester’s work in the community has ranged from working in a residential setting for troubled adolescents to serving as a community representative on the board of the Twin City Derby Girls. Affectionately known as “Mr. Clean Your Clock” among his derby family, Koester believes in being active in a variety of areas. One of his accomplishments for the Champaign community is as one of the founders of the UP Center of Champaign County, an organization focused on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. The organization has flourished and hosted several events to bring awareness and build community relationships for the LGBT community. A shining star himself, Koester has remained true to who he is at heart, and encourages others in the LGBT community to do the same. Not always an easy task to accomplish, the UP Center offers support for those who work to find themselves in environments that are not always supportive of them.

Koester speaks fondly of the support he had growing up. Not only close to his immediate family, which includes his sister Dawn, he also spent a lot of time with his extended family. He rode bikes and listened to music with his cousins. Once thinking he would be a veterinarian, Koester realized his aversion to blood and body parts might not make him the best vet. He didn’t lose his way, though. He found his inspiration. An experience he had in high school offered him the first glimpse at the passion he fosters now. He stayed with his aunt and uncle who, at the time, were house parents at a large orphanage in Tennessee. No stranger to the concept of adoption, Koester understood that some children did not have permanent homes. At the orphanage, though, he saw the reality of that. He was surrounded by children who had “no one to take them in.” Taking this to heart, in college he worked for a residential treatment center where he continued to nurture his love of working with adolescents.

In fields such as psychology and mental health, dealing with patients and clients can be an ongoing challenge. Experiencing frustration and a waning focus is not an uncommon occurrence. Kris says that he always tries to see the potential in the people he helps and wants them to see the same. He believes everyone has something good to offer the world. He’s worked in these fields since 2000 when he first began with the residential treatment facility. A solid connection with an administrator there took him to Miami, Florida, where he was able to assist with the opening of a new location for a national non-profit. The organization serves children and families, which provided another layer to the work Koester had been doing, a holistic approach to treating families, not just individuals. This proved to be pivotal in his decision to pursue social work.

Through his experiences he has done a lot of great work and met a lot of incredible people. One of the people in his life that has had a huge impact on the direction he’s taken is Marlin Livingston. The CEO of Cunningham Children’s Home, Livingston is a strong advocate of helping adolescents find their way in life. A testament to his commitment to this mission is his own role as an adoptive parent. Koester believes so highly in the work that Livingston has done that he followed him to Florida to begin the work on the new division of the national non-profit. He was even motivated to go to grad school and follow his dream of working in the field of social work. Koester notes that he is well aware that a life in social work is not a money-making endeavor, but that’s not why he’s doing it. “It has to be about your heart, your head, and your passion to make a difference,” Koester says.

The moment when a client is able to grow and make progress in treatment, can manage his behavior, or find a “forever home,” are the moments that make it all worth it. The journey may be rough, but the ultimate outcome is how the person’s life can be improved. Koester references a daytime talk show he once saw. The host asked the guest, a 16-year-old boy, why he would want to be adopted since he was 16 years old. Without skipping a beat the teenager answered that he just wanted someone to be there for him. To have someone to share his accomplishments with in life and have someone who would tell him “I love you.” And that’s why Koester continues his efforts. To offer support to individuals, like the teen, who need a cheerleader in their corner.

Talking about long term plans, Koester would love to do consulting work for agencies. Using his background in both economics and social work he would help agencies improve operations even when faced with financial constraints. The nature of non-profits can mean adapting to changes in funding. This can impact non-profits in a negative way. Koester believes he could help agencies not falter under the pressure of negative changes. He goes on to say, though, that wherever he ends up, as long as he can help others, he will be happy. Part of that happiness also comes from his other passions in life and the circle of friends he holds dear.

When he’s not helping others he’s working on his new apartment in downtown Champaign. He can also be found hosting trivia at Boltini Lounge. He enjoys catching live music, and if the Illinois weather is cooperating, he also enjoys getting outside. Always seeming to be on the go, he does have down time, even reserving a night here and there for catching up on sleep. Energy for the busy schedule he has is important. Music always in the background, he even has a song he plays to get him charged up for the daily grind. The song “Titanium,” by David Guetta featuring Sia reminds him that, no matter what happens, you have the power to control your life. Returning to his motto, he says, “You are YOU for a reason.” Never forget that even when the hard times come.

Closing out the night of questions I asked Koester one he’s never been asked before: “If someone wrote a biography about you, what title would you choose for it?” Summing up his passion and his life, Koester replied, “Keep Calm and Carry On: The Story of a Forever Friend and Champion of Change.” Like a hero off the pages of a bestseller, Koester’s life will inspire others to make a difference in the world around them. Without even knowing, it he’ll leave a legacy of love, hope, and compassion wherever he goes.

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