November 20, 2012

A fond farewell to Kathy Kiddy, who is ‘retiring’
after almost two decades of shepherding Hatteras teens


We hear stories all the time, especially this time of year, about people whose actions have a profound impact on the lives of others. The stories are familiar—the teacher who never gave up on them, the mentor who helped them find their way, the stranger whose unsolicited kindness altered, however permanently or briefly, the way they saw the world.

But in spite of the clichés, and sometimes in spite of ourselves, we almost invariably come away with that warm fuzzy feeling—the one that refreshes our stores of good will toward men and reminds us, if only for a moment, that we are, or at least can be, much more than just the sum of our parts.

Whether they’ve told them or not, many people have their own personal versions of these stories tucked away.  And for a lot of kids and families from Hatteras Island, those stories probably involve a woman named Kathy Kiddy.

For the better part of two decades, “Miss Kathy” put all of her time and every ounce of her effervescent energy into running the Cape Hatteras Teen Association, Inc. -- or, as it was more affectionately called, “Locomotion.”

The organization is probably best known for sponsoring social and cultural activities for local teens. Visitors to the island likely remember seeing or visiting Locomotion’s Changing Tide thrift store in Buxton, which Kiddy started as a way to raise funds and increase visibility for the organization.

And while the teen association wasn’t Kiddy’s idea—she wasn’t even one of its founding members—her name has become synonymous with the organization. It was Kiddy who stepped in to save the organization when it was about to fall apart, and it was Kiddy who spent the next 15 years of her life as a tireless advocate for the kids who needed it.

She was the engine that powered Locomotion. And she had a terrific run.

Now, she is getting ready to retire and give up her leadership in the organization. And she is fervently hoping someone else will step up to the plate to help Hatteras teens.

It all started back in 1994, when a group of students at the high school, who were frustrated by the lack of extracurricular opportunities available to them and who ultimately wanted to have a safe, inclusive space within the community where they could go to hang out, came up with the idea for a teen center. 

They approached the local Kiwanis club with the idea, and the Kiwanians immediately jumped on board. Together, they raised almost $40,000—an impressive sum by today’s standards, but a small fortune in 1994. 

The excitement was palpable, and things moved pretty fast from there.

Within a year, a board was formed to oversee the association’s operations, and they were quickly granted 501(c)3 non-profit status. Soon after that, they purchased insurance to protect officers and directors from personal lawsuits, and they secured the old Brew-Thru building in Frisco to serve as their headquarters and as the recreation space the students had wanted.

By 1995, the necessary repairs to the building had been completed, and the teen center—located in what is now the Frisco Sandwich Company—opened its doors.

It offered students food, drinks, music, pool tables, ping-pong tables, and plenty of space in which to gather and socialize.

The building operated as a drop-in center, and it was supervised entirely by volunteers who were organized by board-selected volunteer coordinators from Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras villages.

Kiddy got involved by serving as the village volunteer coordinator for Buxton.

In addition, she and her husband Russ were members of the parent support group that met at the teen center. 

“There were a group of parents, myself and my husband included, who felt that our teenage children were doing things that they shouldn’t,” said Kiddy. “Whether it was smoking pot, drinking beer, partying, or whatever...we were concerned,” she said. “The basis for the teen organization was to catch them before they fall off the mountain.”

Kiddy quickly realized what an asset the teen association could be to the community—not just as an outlet for the kids, but also as a resource for the parents.

And then the money ran out.

Kiddy was upset, and she contacted a local preacher, Rev. Jim Huskins, and asked him if he would do a funeral service for the teen association.

“I don’t know if I was being coy or flip or just sad,” she said, “but I said, ‘It’s all but dead, so we might as well go ahead and bury it.’”

Rev. Huskins didn’t do the funeral service. Instead, he gave Kiddy some advice. He suggested that she go to the county commissioners and ask for some money. So Kiddy and her husband took the idea to the teen association board, and they gave her permission to approach the county on behalf of the organization.

Kiddy, Jackie Leeling, and Debbie Martin drew up a proposal and took it to the Dare County Board of Commissioners at their next meeting. The county gave them $5,000, and Kiddy and her husband offered to pay all of the organizations outstanding bills out of their own pockets. 

The teen association was out of the red, but it wasn’t exactly in the clear.

They had to give up the building they had been renting, and without the drop-in center, which had been the focal point of the organization, they knew that their whole approach would have to change.

That’s when “Locomotion” was born. 

The idea was that, instead of having a fixed location, they would organize different types of events and activities all over the island—and beyond—and they would use county vans to transport the kids to and from those locations.

But a venue wasn’t the only void left by the sacrifice of the teen center. The building had given the association a kind of identity—something with which people could associate the organization, something that grounded it in the community. They needed an equivalent for Locomotion, a brand ambassador of sorts.

They needed Kathy Kiddy.

You see, working with young people—teenagers especially—is one of those things that is a universally acknowledged good, and yet, is something that few people actually want to do and even fewer people can actually do well. 

If you have teenagers, know teenagers, or remember being a teenager, it’s not too difficult to understand why. As a crucible for maturity, adolescence is a painful and exciting and sad and fun and terrifying and confusing and chaotic experience.

Some of us barely made it out alive the first time, and it’s a person with a rare cocktail of virtues—along with a spirit of adventure, an infinite supply of optimism, and maybe just a dash of plain ol’ foolishness—who has the guts to go back in.

Fortunately, Kathy Kiddy is just that kind of person. 

“My husband uses the analogy that I’m like a beagle,” she said with a smile. “I just squint my eyes and jump in the briar patch.”

Luckily, for the Cape Hatteras Teen Association, she was willing to jump in the briar patch for half of what they had paid her predecessors.

To be fair, the board offered her the same salary they had paid the other directors. But Kiddy knew their financial situation and knew what it would take to run the organization. So, she agreed to take half the previous director’s salary with the idea that, when the organization was more financially secure, they would renegotiate.

And then she got right down to the business of rebuilding the teen association. 

For her first event, Kiddy scheduled a Bingo game at the community building in Rodanthe. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she chose Rodanthe specifically because her dad had always told her, affectionately, that the tri-villagers were “tough nuts to crack.” Naturally, she wanted to crack them.

Only four kids showed up.

Her family was worried about her when the event was over. They were concerned that she would feel hurt or defeated by the outcome.  But it was just the opposite—Kiddy was on cloud nine.

“I was riding on high coming home,” she said, laughing. “I was thinking, ‘I had four kids! I did it! I cracked the nut!’”

More importantly, though, she said the experience helped her see the big picture, to get some perspective on what she was doing. “It set me up to understand that, if what I did personally, professionally—if what locomotion provided—was but for one child, then it was worth it.”

Of course, she then spent the next 15 or so years trying to reach every child on the island.

There just aren’t a lot of people like that.

“There was never a time that she didn’t provide us what we asked for,” said Jean Taylor, the principal at Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal Studies. “It was never ‘I don’t have time.’ It was ‘When do you need it?’ We always knew we could call Kathy.” 

That kind of dependability is part of what made her so good at her job—in more ways than one.

Sure, it gave her professional credibility, but it also wasn’t lost on the kids she worked with. Teenagers are more perceptive than we adults tend to give them credit for. They know the value trust, and they trusted Kiddy.

In turn, their trust was something Kiddy never took lightly. “I think that is why I have been successful as a director,” she said. “Yes, I’m over-the-top, but I know when to keep a confidence. And breaking a child’s confidence is something that should never be done.”

But the ability to gain the kids’ trust, though critically important, wasn’t the only thing that made Kiddy so successful.

“She had a way of getting students to volunteer to do things,” Taylor said. “She had a way of getting you so captivated that you’d say yes.”

Under Kiddy’s direction, Locomotion flourished.

They organized school dances, for both middle and high school students, as well as pre-prom events like Cinderella’s Closet, where Kiddy collected all manner of formal wear and finery and allowed prom-bound students to go “shopping” in the Locomotion thrift store for free. There were also after-prom events, including trips to the Busch Gardens theme park.

They held fundraisers, like the annual Seal Swim and orchestrated school-related events, such as the bi-annual principal’s list receptions and yearly graduation celebrations.

They also helped bring supplemental educational opportunities to the students, including a presentation about abstinence and teen pregnancy through East Carolina University’s Baby Think it Over (BTIO) program and seminars about the importance of self-esteem and the effects of bullying, which Kiddy led herself.

Kiddy also pushed hard for cultural activities and artistic outlets for the students. When she could, she would get tickets to plays at operas that were showing at the Scope Theater in Norfolk, Va.—shows like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Chicago.” 

On one of those outings, she and another adult had taken a group of sixth-grade students to see a play that starred Alan Thicke—who, in case you have forgottten, is famous for playing the head of the Seaver household on the TV show “Growing Pains.”

As they were leaving the play, Kiddy spotted Thicke, who was heading toward his bus, and pointed him out to the students. 

Now, I don’t care how old you are, or how cool you think you’ve become, catching a glimpse of a genuinely famous person is pretty exciting, especially if you’re from a small town and especially if that person used to be Jason Seaver. 

So Kiddy encouraged them to get out their playbills and ask Thicke to sign them. They were all nervous and little bit unsure of themselves, and Kiddy was getting worried that they would miss out on the opportunity.

But just before Thicke stepped onto the bus, one of the kids worked up the nerve to ask him to sign his booklet. Thicke said he would be honored.

Buoyed by their classmates’ success, the other students ran over to get their playbills autographed, too.  Then they loaded the bus and headed to the Golden Corral for dinner, which was their tradition on such outings.

By the time they got to the restaurant, Kiddy said, their general excitement had morphed into full-blown celebrity fever.

“They were so star struck. And it just kind of hit me like a ton of bricks—you gotta cool this fire off.”

Since cooling down a sixth-grade fire can be a bit tricky, Kiddy chose her move very carefully. She got their attention, and asked all of them to sign her playbill.

And while they stared at her in confusion, she validated them by acknowledging the utter awesomeness of getting to meet someone famous, then she calmly explained that each of them was just as awesome, and every bit as important, as Alan Thicke.

Playbills started flying around the table, everyone clamoring for everyone else’s signature.

And when the waitress, a fairly young woman and a complete stranger to everyone in the group, came to the table, the same intrepid young man who had first approached Alan Thicke, looked her dead in the eye and asked if he could have her autograph, too.

She was stunned, but she stayed at their table until she had autographed every single one of those kids’ booklets.  After they had all eaten, the kids got together and decided they wanted to give her a really big tip. They ended up leaving her $40.

Not too long ago, that boy, now a full-grown adult, saw Kiddy out and about one day. He came up to her, gave her a hug, and said, “Miss Kathy, I sure do love you.”

When you hear Kiddy tell that kind of story, it’s hard to imagine that she’s retiring. But that’s exactly what she’s doing.

“It’s time for me to step back,” she said. “Time for me to step away.”

After the county gave the teen association that first $5,000—and after seeing how important and beneficial their work had been—they were able to work the organization into their annual budget.  She is grateful for the support of a Hatteras Island commissioner, the late Mac Midgett of Rodanthe.  In the years that followed, the organization received about $18,000 from the county, and raised the rest of the $30,000 operating cost on its own. 

Then the county funds dropped to $10,000, then to $6,000, and eventually, the county cut out funding for Locomotion altogether.

For a couple of years, Kiddy managed to operate the organization on what she brought in through fundraising efforts and by running the thrift store. 

Then came Hurricane Irene.

In the wake of the storm, Kiddy was flooded with calls requesting food and clothing for island kids. She helped whenever and however she could, until eventually, she couldn’t afford—either in time or money—to keep the store open. She had to give it up.

Not having the store really decreased Locomotion’s visibility, and what funds were left in the organization’s coffers began to quickly disappear.

And then this year, sometime in October, the teen association’s insurance expired, and there was no money to purchase more.

That was the final straw for Kiddy.

She had jumped in a lot of briar patches, and she may have been willing to jump in a few more, but running a non-profit—especially one like Locomotion—without insurance was one patch she wouldn’t touch. It was just too dangerous, no matter how hard she squinted.

So after 15 years of dances, fundraisers, plays, seminars, and faithful service to a community that loved her just as much as she loved it, Kathy Kiddy is walking away from The Hatteras Island Teen Association, Inc.

“It’s a tremendous loss for Hatteras,” Taylor said, adding that, without a doubt, “the lives of the students whose spirits she touched are much richer because of her...there won’t be another Kathy Kiddy.”

It’s a legacy that Kiddy is rightfully proud of. 

“I know that everything I’ve done, I’ve done for the right reasons,” she said. “I’m leaving with my joy, and I’m living with no regrets.”

Though she is taking the name “Locomotion” with her, she is leaving the association itself intact and in good standing. And she desperately wants to pass the torch to a new generation of community leaders. There may never be another Kathy Kiddy, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be another director of the organization.

“My greatest hope,” she said, clearly starting to choke up, “is that it won’t die.”

Kiddy has said that she hopes the community will realize the impact a non-profit organization focused on helping kids can have, and that they will come together to form another board and revive the association.

And though she noted that she would be more than willing to help guide someone through the process and be available as a resource, she was adamant that she will not sit on another board, nor will she run another organization.

She’s serious about retiring, and she has big plans for this new chapter in her life.

She and her daughter, Christy Oberbeck, recently opened a new thrift store—a for-profit store—in Frisco, and when asked what she was going to do now, she said, confidently and happily, “I’m going to run my business, love my husband, and,” she paused for a moment and smiled, “and I’m going to continue to help with fundraising for children’s events.”

If you would like to support the community’s efforts in the absence of The Hatteras Island Teen Association, Inc., Conner’s Supermarket has set up a fund called “Fueling the Future.” Anyone can donate and all proceeds will be used to benefit the youth of Hatteras Island.

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