Small Acts of Kindness

Katie’s Legacy: Local Family Creates Grants for the Community's Youth

Karate lessons, violin rentals, prom tickets, art supplies and softball cleats— these are all items local families couldn’t afford for their children.

Thankfully, with support from the nonprofit Katie’s Kids, those families were able to purchase the items, lift their children’s spirits and feel the kindness of Kaitlyn Eckelberry’s legacy. 

Throughout the year, Katie’s Kids provides grants averaging $150 to Stark County children in grades K-12 who are identified by a network of community liaisons— teachers, counselors, religious leaders and social workers. The grant, in the form of a check or gift card, is given to the liaison to give to the child’s caregiver so they can purchase the item with their child to ensure the dignity of the caregiver. 

Kaitlyn “Katie” Eckelberry’s life was just starting.  After the Hoover High School alumna earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Gannon University and passed the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, she signed a contract for her dream job as a physician assistant in orthopedics. She was coaching softball at Chatham University, had just signed a lease on a new apartment and was building a life with her boyfriend, Kane Elliot. 

In February 2020, Katie’s life changed forever. Two weeks before starting her job at Penn Highland Hospital, she was driving home from softball practice near Pittsburgh when a drunk driver crossed the center line and hit her vehicle head-on. Katie passed away from the accident at the age of 23.

Katie is remembered for her vivacious personality, big heart and passion for helping those less fortunate feel loved. 

“She was an includer,” recalled Katie’s mother, Lori Eckelberry. “She could always tell who was hurting and did her best to make them feel better. She had a good heart.”

Following Katie’s passing, her parents, Jim and Lori, along with sisters Kristina and Kortney, were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from their family, friends and the community. 

“It was our faith, family and friends that carried us through,” said Jim. “So many people checked in and asked us how they could help us through this difficult time.”

While grappling with their grief, the Eckelberrys were sure about one thing: they wanted to continue Katie’s legacy.

It was through a colleague of Jim’s that they learned about Alice’s Kids, an organization based out of Virginia that provides financial assistance to children facing immediate needs. Jim and Lori talked to Alice’s Kids about replicating the program in Stark County, and the organization graciously agreed.

Drawing on Lori’s background in education and Katie’s passion for helping others, Katie’s Kids was established. The nonprofit was born out of their deep desire to continue Katie’s legacy, embracing her caring spirit and dedication to boosting others’ self-esteem.

Katie’s Kids does not accept applications from the general public. Instead, the nonprofit has developed a network of community liaisons— teachers, counselors, religious leaders, social workers and others— who complete a simple application upon identifying a child with a specific need.

The immediate need for a child can vary from summer camp fees, shoes and sporting equipment to AP exam fees, senior pictures and instrument rentals. Providing direct assistance for items families can’t afford allows the child to feel more “normal” amongst their more fortunate peers.

If the application is approved, a check is written to the appropriate entity, such as a dance studio or music company, or a gift card is sent electronically to the liaison in less than 48 hours for the family to use. It’s important to Katie’s Kids that they provide the gift card to the caregiver, allowing the caregiver to purchase the item with their child and be the hero in the story.

“It’s a win-win,” shared Jim. “For a child who needs basketball shoes–– the parent feels good about providing for their child, and the child is excited to have new sneakers. That’s a slam dunk in my book.”

To ensure that the support is being used to enhance the self-esteem of children, the average grant is $150 per child and cannot be used for food, housing, transportation, medical care or legal fees.

Since Katie’s Kids started, direct financial assistance has supported more than 900 school-aged children in 60 schools throughout Stark County, all in Katie’s honor.

“Every single family tells me the relief and peace it brings to them when one small or large financial burden is off their plate," said Kristin Dunnivan, a community liaison for Avondale Elementary. "Most of them feel terrible admitting that their child’s activities are a burden to them, but when the financial side of it is relieved, their whole perspective changes!”

Each year, the nonprofit raises money through generous donations from various programs like its annual Fore Eck Forever Golf Outing, 5K run and 14 Club— a
heartfelt initiative that allows participants to make a monthly contribution of $14 in memory of Katie, who wore the number 14 throughout her athletic career.

“We started Katie’s Kids for a selfish reason­— to keep Katie’s legacy alive,” shared Lori. “The unselfish reasons are the 815 kids and counting we are helping. Every time we help a child, it helps heal our hearts some.”

The board of directors and its all-volunteer staff are considering expanding Katie’s Kids into Summit and other counties. They also hope to continue to build a base of support, get the word out about the program and lift as many spirits as possible because they know it’s what Katie would have wanted.

To learn more, visit KatiesKids14.org.

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