Charles Van Kessler considers his life’s calling is helping needy children. After all, he used to be one of them.
The 77-year-old Encinitas resident grew up during World War II in Amsterdam, Holland. A half-Jewish, half-Catholic son, Charles saw his father's half of the family killed when he was a baby. Then, when he was 2 and his mother could no longer support him on her own, he was taken to an orphanage with a dozen other children. There, he endured abuse and negligence until he ran away at the age of 9, at which point he began to live his life on the streets alone.
"I don't know how I did it, and I don't ever want to even think about how I did it," Charles said.
At age 21, his luck changed when he met an American family who agreed to sponsor his green card so he could move to the United States. While working in New Mexico, and living in Texas, Charles witnessed young children foraging for food in the trash.
The image surprised him and inspired him to create change.
"It was an unbelievable scene," he remembered. "With that and my own upbringing, God spoke to me and said I needed to do something way more than what I was doing."
In 1978, Charles created Passion 4 K.I.D.S. (Kids in Desperate Situations), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit charity organization that helps children whose lives are affected by extreme financial hardships. He moved the operation to his new home in Encinitas, where he moved in 1996, and eventually partnered with his wife, Linda Van Kessler.
The couple has regularly raised donations and funds to take needy children out to events, as well as remodel homes to allow for handicap-accessible doorways; provide accessible vans; and pay bills when money is otherwise going toward medical equipment, hospital stays and prescriptions.
"A lot of these kids live at home in difficult situations — drug-related, alcohol, stuff like that. We go there and help out as much as we can with what we can do," Charles said.
Linda added that the charity focuses on families in the United States, and currently assists hundreds of families in Camp Pendleton alone and another 80 children throughout the country. Most of the people they assist are in San Diego, she said.
One of the most notable children the Van Kesslers have helped was "Baby Izaiah." The special-needs child, now 8, was struck by a drunk driver while in his stroller in 2010 when he was 18 months old. He remains paralyzed from the chest down, can't speak and has brain damage.
Upon learning about Baby Izaiah, Passion 4 K.I.D.S. immediately wanted to help. They raised $100,000 to purchase the family a home in Vista and recruited 65 local businesses to contribute to a home makeover. The Van Kesslers have also purchased a handicap-access van and have covered unexpected expenses for the child's family.
"I always tell [Charles and Linda] that we wouldn't be where we are today without their help," said Jacob Wallis, Baby Isaiah's father. "They came in, not knowing us at all, and ever since that day they found us, they've never left us."
Wallis said Passion 4 K.i.d.s. is still regularly in contact with his family and pays for his son's therapy sessions.
Linda added that, while Passion 4 K.I.D.S. can't help everybody that contacts them, the organization does try to help as much as they can. She said people will not be ignored if they reach out for assistance and can prove a financial hardship. From there, if the charity and family agrees to enter into a relationship, Passion 4 K.I.D.S. is there for the long haul, Linda said.
"We can't always help to the extent that we want to help — because we just don't have the resources — but we never want to be one that people reach out to and never hear back from," she said.
Most of the charity's funds come from donations. Linda said the couple would rather spend their time directly with the families rather than at labor-intensive galas and fundraisers.
The couple also does not take salaries and works from home to cut down on office costs. Charles also owns Passion 4 Life, a vitamin company, in which he donates proceeds to Passion 4 K.I.D.S.
"The biggest challenge is that we just can't help on the level that we want to help," Linda said, adding that the nonprofit has, so far, not received any support from large corporations. "We also don't want to just write a check and say, 'Have a nice life.' If they have a need, we actually pay for that need directly to make sure the money never gets diverted.We're always the advocate for the child. If you have a need for the child, and you can prove it, then we'll do everything we can to try and help and raise the money."
Charles said he still gets nightmares from his own childhood but feels humbled to be able to help other kids better their lives.
"I understand what all these kids go through, and that's why we do what we do," he said. "We get a lot of gratification for what we do and feel very blessed to be able to do it, but we want to do more and we can't do it on our own."
For more information and to donate to the organization, visit www.Passion4kids.com.