With her All-American good looks and effortless grace, Kyleigh Kuhn is a natural model, but the educated and articulate Ms. Kuhn is so much more than just a pretty face. As one of the founders of the Penny Campaign, Kyleigh is a humanitarian and ambassador for positive change: since 2003 her organization has helped to provide schools for children in regions where landmines and the remnants of war have made the simple act of getting an education a life or death matter. MDC caught up with the rising star to talk about her career, her activism and the inspiring stories behind the scenes.
MDC: How did you start modeling?
K: Modeling was not something that I directly pursued. When I was first approached I was at UC Berkeley and academics were my primary focus. At first I declined, but as graduation came closer and I started thinking about all the possibilities. I think that happens to everyone, all of a sudden the whole world unfolds in front of them and they realize there are a thousand different paths they are able to take. So I was reevaluating that possibility and around senior year of college I started. That was in San Francisco, so the market was definitely smaller. I did a shoot for Abercrombie and Fitch’s Rising Stars Campaign and they wanted to cover my non-profit work, during that I had the opportunity to meet Bruce Weber and that was a really quite an interesting experience. He has a huge amount of authenticity, I was definitely inspired by him and we hit it off. He asked me if would come to New York and model, that same day he set up a dinner with Francis Grill from Click Models and that was that.
Kyleigh and her brothers by Bruce Weber
MDC: How do you find the world of modeling compared to school and academics?
K: It is definitely different in a lot of ways. At first it took some getting used to; I was raised to kind of not acknowledge my physical appearance at all. I was always the person that would make a funny face at a camera whenever one was pulled out. So it took me a while to kind of realize that it is okay to try to look beautiful. It is a learning process but it’s been a really nice one.
I was just thinking about it last night and in my courses I studied globalization and cosmopolitanism – in a lot of ways I think that modeling and the entire fashion world as it is, is really a form of positive globalization bringing together those people from all across the world. They come together under a common goal, a common creativity. It is following people’s creative spirits in a way, gathering people from across the world to come together in this force that creates something exquisite. I am understanding it in these terms; it feels like it is more of a cohesive transition.
MDC: Tell us a bit about how you got started with your non-profit work.
K: When I was 13, I accompanied my mother on a US State department mission to Croatia. I was definitely the youngest delegate and it was really jarring for me to see what children my own age were living through. I remember one girl in particular that had lost both of her parents and just from the trauma, losing her parents to the war, she developed a growth deficiency. She just stopped growing. That is such a direct symbol of what war does, it really incapacitates people from being able to grow and reach their full potential. Seeing what I saw at such a formative age of my life had a profound effect on me, especially coming from California, where I had a very safe childhood. I am thankful for that privilege of course, but I realized that with my life there comes a responsibility. That seed was planted on that trip.
It wasn’t until September 11th when all those feelings came back. I was a freshman in high school, when that happened and I knew that I needed to do something to give back. Here I was with a mother who was doing such incredible things around the world, so I knew that I had the capacity to try and do something. Then I met with Cheryl Jennings of ABC News; Cheryl, my mother and I sat down and out of that meeting came the idea of creating the Penny Campaign. The Penny Campaign is focused on de–mining areas around schools or around possible school sites. It is really neat because it actually has a direct correlation to what I saw in Croatia and it gives children an opportunity to go to school. It was astonishing to me how much these kids just wanted to learn, that really inspired me to be appreciative of my possibility to strive to continue my academics, which I thereon did.
MDC: It is incredible how important an education is and what people are willing to do to get it.
K: Absolutely. While my mum was touring around, one of the drivers that had taken me there – he looked over across the horizon and was pointing to a place and he was like “Look, there is where my children go to school.” And here I am looking for a school-house or anything that would resemble a school and I can’t see anything, and I felt so embarrassed kind of asking him a couple of times like “Where are you pointing?”. Eventually I realized that he was pointing to a sheet. At that moment I knew we needed to go and investigate a little bit more what was going on. After we were done with the tour there, we drove across a river bed and arrived at his children’s school. It was one broken-down wall, the wall coincidentally had painted on it pictures of land mines to try to warn the children that they were there, and from that wall pulled to a grape vine (kind of almost like a tree) was a sheet and that’s where his children went to school everyday. We just kind of were looking there in awe. At that moment I realized that needs to be the next location for a school to be built.
Children just kept on coming out of the local fields, 10 turned into 30, it was just incredible – all these students! We were just so excited, and they knew that by our presence it could mean aid to them so they were just so excited for the prospect of some help coming their way. I am happy to say that now there is a school there for over 250 boys and girls. This summer I should be returning to be able to see the actual construction. I was kind of embarrassed about this, but my mom said that when she went back to visit they had the ribbon cutting ceremony and they revealed that they named the school after me.
With mother Heidi Kuhn and landmine survivors at the ICRC
MDC: What are the goals of Roots of Peace and The Penny Project?
K: Roots of Peace also started to do their agricultural development work in Afghanistan and now it’s the largest agricultural development effort currently in Afghanistan: we are 100 million dollars in the contract with the USAID and we are planting the seeds of peace. Our whole program there is focusing on teaching farmers alternative ways to cultivate their lands that can increase their yield threefold and fourfold, just by introducing different technologies. We are kind of taking the spirit of the Napa valley and bringing it to Afghanistan, of course with respect to their culture that we don’t cultivate the vineyards into wine, but for table grapes. We also provide ways to help farmers sell their goods in markets that they otherwise would not have access to. In the end we are really able to increase their earnings to the point where they make more cultivating the various crops that we introduce, as opposed to selling poppies.
MDC: What are some of the things you’re proudest of about the project?
K: The newest project that is going on – a high school for 600 girls. We built a school in this region where these amazing Buddhas were carved into the mountain scape in Afghanistan, unfortunately the Taliban bombed them. We chose that region because it is right above where those statues had been built. It is really a nice juxtaposition because it is showing the destruction of war, but also the first steps towards peace and reconstruction – that’s our effort. I am so excited to see what happens because these girls are closer in age to me.
For more information about Roots of Peace and The Penny Program visit their website : Roots of Peace. org