In December 2003, 11-year-old Kendall Ciesemier descended the stairs from her bedroom holding an envelope stuffed with $360 of her own money and asked her parents for a stamp. She had just watched an Oprah Winfrey show about AIDS orphans in Africa, and after some Internet research, she had discovered World Vision, a Christian relief organization. Now, with the approval of her parents, Michael and Ellery Ciesemier, Kendall sponsored an eight-year-old Mauritanian girl named Benite.

A few months later, Kendall received a letter from Benite saying she was doing well and had started school for the first time. “It made me feel so empowered,” Kendall says today. “I thought that I could change more kids’ lives with a little help.” Soon she focused on a larger project: raising $60,000 to help children in Musele, an area with some of the highest malnutrition rates in Zambia.

In the summer of 2004, while undergoing two liver transplants (Kendall was born with a rare condition called biliary atresia), she encouraged her concerned friends and family members to help out with her fundraising. She even began making and selling “Bow Wow Bling Bling” dog necklaces. “I think people looked at her strength and courage—that she was a kid, a sick kid, and she turned her illness into something good for someone else—and they got behind that,” says Ellery Ciesemier. 

Home from the hospital, Kendall started a nonprofit organization, Kids Caring 4 Kids. She organized bake sales, sold T-shirts, and spoke at schools and churches. In three years, she had surpassed her initial goal and raised $100,000—which also earned her some big-name recognition. Last September, during Kendall’s second week as a freshman at Wheaton North High School, former president Bill Clinton, in town on tour for his new book, Giving, honored her at a school assembly. Afterwards, Clinton swept her away to a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show, where, during a commercial break, an anonymous donor traveling with Clinton pledged $500,000 to Kendall’s organization.

“For a long time, even before Oprah and all this stuff, I knew I was supposed to help people,” Kendall says. “I wasn’t sure exactly how, but I wanted to do something.” Yet for all her determination, Kendall remains a fun-loving teenage girl. An “A” student and a tennis player, she loves watching Project Runway on TV and quotes often from the movie Zoolander. In the family’s Wheaton home—where she has lived all her life with her parents and older brother, Connor, 17—her bedroom is completely pink and purple. And one of her first thoughts as the 42nd president of the United States called her to the podium during the morning assembly was: “I wonder if someone will ask me to the Homecoming dance now.” (Someone did. She went. “It was fun.”)

When asked about her latest goal—raising $1 million for Kids Caring 4 Kids—Kendall doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m definitely going to get there,” she says. “And by then I will have new, even bigger goals.”