By: Richard Kaufman | Greenwich Sentinel
On May 17, at the Greenwich Country Club, the Greenwich Leadership Forum will hold its annual dinner, and this year, Greenwich residents and co-founders of the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, Cynthia and David Kim, are the special guest honorees.
David and Cynthia started Fallen Patriots 16 years ago with a mission to provide college scholarships and educational counseling to military children who have lost a parent in the line of duty.
In addition to the Kims, former New York Yankees first baseman, Mark Teixeira, will be the special guest interviewee.
The GLF is an organization that provides a forum for business executives to explore how faith and religious principles can play an important role in their decision-making while building and leading successful and ethically sound organizations.
Although Fallen Patriots is a secular foundation, Cynthia said that both she and David have strong faiths. They’ve been involved with the GLF on and off for about a decade, and they use the principles of their faith to serve and think of others before themselves.
“There’s a verse in the Bible about taking care of widows and orphans in their time of need, and that’s true in charity. That’s truly what charity is. I think that motivates us everyday,” Cynthia said.
Back in 1989, David Kim was serving in the United States Army and was deployed to Panama as part of Operation Just Cause. Five days before Christmas, tragedy struck.
Sgt. William Delaney Gibbs, a soldier in David’s battalion, was killed in action at the age of 21, leaving behind a wife and unborn child at home. His daughter was due in March.
“That hit all of us hard,” David said. “When you’re in the military, especially as an officer, you’re just always trained to take care of your troops and take care of their families, and it just kind of always stuck with me about the question of what’s going to happen to that little girl?”
Although David didn’t know Sgt. Gibbs personally, his story left a lasting impact. He began to think about ways he could help families in similar situations. There are so many impactful programs that help veterans with employment, mental health, job transition, and recovering from wounds, but how could the public help families that are left behind?
“We thought the best way to honor people like Sgt. Gibbs was to take care of their kids, because I’m sure any parent would say the last thing going through their mind would be, ‘who’s going to take care of my kids?'” David said.
Several years after Sgt. Gibbs’ death, David put together a business plan and conducted research on how to start the foundation. His wife, Cynthia, vividly remembers sitting with their newborn and two-year-old in their rented apartment on a couch she bought in college when David told her he wanted to put some of their own money into the foundation to get it off the ground.
“I said, ‘I need a couch,'” Cynthia recalled. “I remember thinking this is crazy. I thought fine, have your dream and I continued to support him.”
Shortly afterwards, in March of 2001, Cynthia was on the phone when her best friend had to take another call. She clicked back over, and shared devastating news.
“She learned that her brother-in-law, who was in the Air National Guard, had been in a plane crash [during a training operation] with 21 other men from my hometown,” Cynthia said. “I’ll never forget how she sounded.”
At that point, Cynthia went from supporting her husband on the periphery to diving right in.
“Some of [the men who were killed] had kids in college at the time, and we jumped in and started helping them,” Cynthia said. “It hit home with me. I hate that it happened, but it made it very clear to me that as a couple we were called to this mission, and it’s a big one. It’s a very big mission.”
Since the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation became a 501(c)(3) organization in 2002, over $21 million has been given to 1,000 students nationwide in all 50 states. There will be 500 graduates altogether after this month. An additional 7,000 children are enrolled with the foundation and will receive aide when they’re of college age.
There’s no selection process for the grants. The foundation looks at the benefits children and families receive from U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
“We try to fill in the gap. Our program guarantees that if you can prove the need, that you can have $25,000 over the course of four years,” Cynthia said. “We help them budget that money, and we help them find other resources that are out there and help them apply for grants and things that are available to them so hopefully they can graduate debt free.”
According to the Fallen Patriots website, approximately 20,000 children have lost an active duty parent in the military over the last 35 years. About 97 percent of casualties are men, leaving behind single mothers to care for their families. Of those families, 60 percent report having trouble making ends meet.
Cynthia said she would cry during the first few calls she made to families she wanted to help. She noted that most of the wives left behind are young, with three children, on average. Because they’re military families, they’ve likely moved around the country and are unable to establish careers.
So when a loved one dies as a result of combat, military training accidents, service-related illnesses, suicide, or other duty-related deaths, the families are sometimes left in precarious situations.
“A lot of them go home and live in their parents’ basement with their children, or maybe that’s not even a resource available to them. They just move forward,” Cynthia said. “Those stories are really hard to hear, especially living in Greenwich where we tend to forget how blessed we are. They keep me grounded, they keep me grateful. Everyday I wake up thinking I have a purpose, and I’m really passionate about the people I get to help.”
David called his work with the foundation “humbling” because he’s been able to witness the resiliency of military families first-hand.
“Their first reaction when we call to help is always, ‘No thanks. I got this. I can suck it up. Someone probably needs the help more than I do,'” David said. “You dig a little more, and come to find out they’re living in a trailer, and eating ramen and [the children] don’t have good glasses to see the board in school. It’s an honor to be a part of taking care of those families and paying it forward.”
The foundation has grown significantly since its inception in 2002. Cynthia said she frequently travels down to Reston, Va., where the foundation is based, to try and help maintain the culture and mission.
“I speak to [the staff and volunteers] very frequently and make sure they understand this isn’t just about giving kids money. We want to be a part of their lives; we want them to feel like they’re apart of a family and not have the money be the focus,” Cynthia said. “We don’t want them to feel like a charity case, and we don’t want them to feel like this is something they’re entitled to, either.”
The entire staff that distributes the scholarships are all former graduates that have benefited from the foundation. Cynthia believes it’s important that they serve as mentors for the younger children because they share similar life experiences.
“It’s a really nice culture. The kids love it, and the family aspect is more pronounced,” she said.
When David isn’t involved with the Foundation, he works full-time as the global co-head of investor relations for Apax Partners, which is a leading global private equity firm operating across the United States, Europe, Asia, India and Latin America.
The Kims have four children: their twin daughters and son attend St. Luke’s School in nearby New Canaan, Conn., and their eldest son attends the United States Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point.
Both David and Cynthia, who have now been married for 21 years, said they’re honored to be recognized by the GLF, but they remain selfless.
“We’ve been in this community for 20 years now, and I still think of us as this couple from Virginia that moved to an amazing community. To be honored in it, it’s hard to describe how it feels,” Cynthia said.
“Our work isn’t really about us. It’s us telling the story on behalf of all the families we serve. The reason that people support Fallen Patriots isn’t David and Cynthia Kim, it’s because they support the military, and they recognize the sacrifices that people have made,” David added. “Often times, people don’t know how to connect to the military, since less than one percent of the population serves. So when you show them a way to do that, it’s a pretty powerful connection.”
Fallen Patriots holds its biggest fundraising gala in Greenwich on Veteran’s Day, and holds other smaller events throughout the year. For more information on the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation and how to donate or enroll, go to fallenpatriots.org.
For more information on the Greenwich Leadership Forum’s Annual Dinner and to register for the event, go to greenwichleadershipforum.org.