Based in New Jersey, Kendra DeBree works as the Business Development Director at Durga Tree International, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support and empower non-profits that work to end human slavery all over the world. Kendra spoke with us about her transition to the non-profit field, what she does at Durga Tree, and her advice for millenials. Keep reading to find out more about her story and experience!
Hi Kendra! How are you doing?
My day is very busy. I’m seizing the day, I feel like I got three hours of sleep because sometimes you get creative in the middle of the night and you write things down. So that’s what was happening to me and now I’m running on pure adrenaline. You know, as a business development director of a non-profit, I have my hands in like 50 different places, so it’s always re-evaluating and re-prioritizing what needs to happen, and when. I was at a convention over the weekend where I made some really solid contacts, so it’s important to follow up with those contacts before they lose sight. You get them excited but don’t talk to them for too long in between, and before you know it, you may lose them.
What were you doing before Durga Tree?
I was a manager for a little while but I always thought, “I’m only doing this because it pays the bills and I’m getting exposure.” I always knew that I wanted to run my own business and I’ve always been the type of person who always needs to have a job. I was supporting myself through school and working at night. I managed my first Pier 1 Imports when I was 19 and I had no idea what I was doing. They just kind of threw me in, so you know, through the years you just build certain skills and expertise.
On joining the non-profit field:
I have a degree in business management, but non-profit work was something I had never previously considered. You know, when you think non-profit, you think, “Oh, well that won’t make me any money.” I was in my 20s so I was all about making money. The only difference between a for-profit and a non-profit business is that at the end of the year, the extra funds don’t go into the pockets of shareholders, of the executives that aren’t necessarily doing the day-to-day. They’re hard-working people [at Durga Tree]. It goes back into program funding for the next year. It’s a business!
After I had my daughter, Emma, who just turned two last month, I was like, “Okay, I haven’t been working retail for nine-plus months now” and I thought, “I can’t go back.” If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do something amazing now. It just so happens that my very best friend’s Aunt and Uncle started this non-profit years ago. I heard about it, but I never really took the time because when you’re in your 20s, you’re not really thinking about this stuff or caring about it. As soon as I turned 30 and became a mom, my priorities changed and I just started thinking about things differently. You see the world differently; you realize how small your world really is.
How did you end up with your position?
I started volunteering last year and just started learning more and more about human trafficking. I was thinking about where I am in my life and thought, “I could really take this non-profit to the next level.” I essentially created this position within Durga Tree International and thought, “we could do something really big”. It turns out that they were ready to take the next steps to make that happen. We’ve raised, in two years, around $250,000 in single donations. We don’t have any grant funding or foundational funding, and that’s actually an element I’m bringing in.
My mother, growing up, worked for the Diocese of Paterson where she worked one-on-one with mentally disabled adults. It was always rewarding for me because I used to go in during the summers and do all sorts of things. I got a little taste of what rewarding work was really like.
What are you currently doing at Durga Tree?
As a business person, you’re always looking at things in a way that’s going to grow and build the organization. I’m making new, lasting contacts and impressions with businesses and individuals at the same time. I have a group of volunteers that I source, solicit and manage on a daily basis. We have a group that we call our “lotus guild”. They are essentially people who are really passionate about becoming day-to-day ambassadors. They also chair or co-chair a certain area of our business. I have someone in charge of “do it yourself” fundraisers, I have someone in charge of speaking engagements, I have someone in charge of social media. We have two large fundraising events per year. We have a gala coming up and we have a walkathon.
Tell us about what Durga Tree does.
We pick and choose specific non-profits around the world that are all working toward the same goal. We all want to eradicate human trafficking but they’re all fighting for the same dollar. We’re bringing organizations so that they don’t have to fight. A lot of this is about planning - event planning is full-time and a lot of these non-profits don’t have the time and resources. That’s where we come in. There’s also the work of building awareness. There are a lot of anti-trafficking organizations in New Jersey where all they do is spread awareness, but we’re unique because we have a plan and we’re going to see it through. Right now we have four partners and we don’t want to take on anymore until we feel that the projects that we have are sustainable.
How Did the Organization Start?
Beth Tiger, on of our co-founders, began as a life coach. She ran “A Life Well Lived” which hosted women’s groups and talks. Her shop was committed to caring products that were made by women-owned businesses. When she started going to trade shows, she found out about trafficking and that is where she met our first partner. The company sold jewelry that was made by survivors of human trafficking. A Life Well Lived dissolved and ultimately became Durga Tree International. Now all of the proceeds made from items sold in the shop are donated toward eradicating human trafficking.
What Organizations Do You Work With?
All of the grassroots organizations that we support must fall in line with one of our branches of freedom. There are organizations that are really great at rescuing, some focus on housing, lobbying or economic empowerment.
Love 146 is awesome, we love them! We actually just went to their red gala, which was the first gala that I attended. We actually supported their creation of their school curriculum around trafficking, which they’re testing it out in Florida, Illinois and Connecticut. Throughout the world, the average trafficked age is 10 so the conversation needs to happen early. A couple of months ago, Love 146 built a women-only shelter out in the Philippines, but when I say women I also mean 10, 11 or 12-year-old girls. They just took in their youngest trafficking survivor who was age two. When you hear stuff like that you think, “who, why would you do something like that?” They also recently opened a boys-only shelter because people have asked why there isn’t a place for little boys who are being trafficked.
Another partner that we support in Guatemala (Asociación La Alianza). They have a shelter and they call it a “casa”. Girls can stay there until the age of 18. When our organization went out there, we wanted to support the babies but also to support the girls. We taught them different ways to care for their baby and that even though your baby was conceived in certain conditions, you can still love your baby. The trafficking issue is becoming a generational issue. They’re born into it, so this is all they know and then they do what they know. They don’t see other opportunities.
Another partner of ours is Truckers Against Trafficking. They are 100% based in the United States. They’re located around areas where there are airports and intercoastal highways. We support a “Freedom Rig” which is a big truck that travels around to different truck stops and educates truckers on what’s happening. They post about missing persons as well as pictures on their facebook. All of these truckers tap in and actually about once per week, they help save a girl and bring her home.
We also support an organization (Good Shepherd Academy) that works in West Cameroon, Africa. What happens there is that many children have to walk five-plus miles to school and on that walk they are taken and then sacrificed for their organs. What we’re trying to do right now is get $25,000 to support the guards that look out for the children as they go to school.
What else are you currently involved in?
I was recently hired as a consultant to help with a window cleaning and pressure washing association. I’ve been in retail for over 10 years and managed hundreds of different types of people, so my friend reached out to me a couple months ago to help out with this 500+ event.
Her advice for millennials:
I felt that I was in an industry that I didn’t really belong in and that I was meant to do something more. I was seriously job-hunting and networking, but I got a tip from a friend and volunteer. Once you start giving back and not thinking about yourself you realize that the more you give, the more you get in return. The moment you let go and when you start doing things that aren’t typical for you, you never know who you’ll meet through a volunteer experience.
Who Would Play You in a Movie About Your Life?
That’s so funny - my friends were just talking about this! Who did we decide on…I think Rachel McAdams.
What is your favorite social media platform?
Facebook is my favorite because I know it so well. I love following Clinton Kelly because I love the show “What Not To Wear”.
Thank you so much, Kendra, for sharing your story and insights! We had a great time talking to you.