Devoted philanthropist, volunteer and Excelsior Youth Center's 2013 Triumphant Woman
By Irene Rawlings
Susan Kiely believes in the simple yet powerful idea of “women helping women to help themselves.” So much so that she started a nonprofit foundation that pursues that exact mission. Women With a Cause, the organization she began in 2006, teaches women around the world to sew, run their own businesses and become financially independent.
Finding the inspiration to start the nonprofit came about somewhat fortuitously. Kiely, an ordained minister with a master’s degree in youth and family ministry, was planning a trip to New York City in 2005 to indulge her twin passions of theater and art. Around the same time, she received an invitation to the World Vision AIDS Day Breakfast—also in New York and coinciding with her trip.
“Maybe it was kismet, maybe it was the hand of God...but as I sat there listening, it dawned on me that working with women who have been affected by AIDS might be my life’s next chapter,” Kiely says. So she traveled to India, home to one of the world’s largest populations of HIV/AIDS victims, to explore the possibility of creating jobs for affected women to help them support their families. Not long after, Women With a Cause was born. She established two centers in the country where women make and sell items, like gorgeous, handmade silk jackets. After they complete their training (more than 800 have participated to date), these women are encouraged to form financial micro-groups to lend money to other women starting businesses.
Women With a Cause is doing good in other parts of the world, too. In Ethiopia, Kiely developed rural chicken farms, allowing families to sell eggs at village markets, and opened a computer-training center for women interested in finding government or private sector jobs. And back home in Denver, WWAC has partnered with several Colorado universities and colleges to provide education and opportunities for formerly homeless women.
In addition to her work with WWAC, Kiely devotes her energy to a variety of meaningful causes—from the Junior League of Denver to the Volunteers of America, to the Alzheimer’s Association and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “I don’t say ‘yes’ to volunteering unless I can devote the time to do it well. But I say ‘yes’ a lot,” she smiles. The causes she supports are defined by her passions—theater, art, books, family, children and, of course, women’s issues—and by her deep spiritual convictions.
This generosity is inspired by her own difficult past. Raised in modest circumstances by a single mother who relocated every few months in order to find work, Kiely attended 13 different grade schools by the time she was 11 years old. Today, the philanthropist is grateful to have more stability. “I have been fortunate,” she says. “My husband has been very successful, and I never needed a paying job.”
And so Susan Kiely devotes her time, knowledge and money to helping others. “Most of my friends are active in the community. We have fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously,” she says, “but we are not frivolous. We spend our time well and hold each other accountable.”
We were just wondering...
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My children...my son and daughter. I was always afraid that I wouldn’t be a good parent because I didn’t have a good role model in my own mother. One moment she was as high as a kite and the next she would be crying. These days, she’d probably be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and could get treatment.
Is there a secret to your long marriage?
Oh, gosh, it has been more than 43 years! Every marriage has its ups and downs, and Leo and I have worked hard at ours. But the core of our relationship has always been respect. There is no one I respect more than my husband. He’s a person of integrity and he feels the same way about me.
Your perfect Sunday. Go.
It starts with church, brunch with my husband and reading the paper. On a nice day, I take the dog for a two- or three-mile walk, then I might go to the Tattered Cover and buy some books. I love to read historical novels.
What is your idea of happiness?
I don’t believe in happiness. I believe in peacefulness. Happiness is fleeting but peace lingers.
Tell us what you like best about your home.
I love color and pattern. I’m a traditionalist and my husband loves modern design—I’ve always enjoyed mixing the two together. We recently moved from a 10,000-square-foot house in Golden (where we were always entertaining) to a 2,000-square-foot residence at The Four Seasons in Denver. To say that we pared down is an understatement.
What is your favorite possession?
Framed pictures of my grandchildren,which I have all around the house.
My husband has always been very generous with gifts, and recently I’ve started giving things away, which has been very freeing. When you travel to developing countries and see how little people have, you realize that you don’t need many things.