by Joanne Davidson, https://www.coloradoexpression.com/featured-stories/woman-with-a-cause
Susan Kiely uses her personal experience, her faith and her boundless energy to make the world a better place for many others
The view from an apartment on the 24th floor of the Four Seasons Private Residences Denver offers a panorama of mountains and plains, a beautiful and breathtaking sight that, when you come to think of it, is a metaphor for the life’s mission of the woman who lives there.
Susan Kiely, founder and chief executive officer of the Women With a Cause Foundation (WWAC), wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. But a difficult childhood—she was born to an unwed mother and has never met her biological father—followed by her own marriage to a successful corporate executive has equipped her with the resolve, vision and means to help make life easier for women in need. Women who, like her, have lives touched by poverty, abuse and mental illness. And, also like her, have life stories that include survival and learning to forgive.
Susan Kiely’s devotion to helping the underserved stems not only personal experience, but also from her strong faith, enriched through a Catholic education, ongoing Bible study, a degree from Denver Seminary and becoming an ordained minister, an internship at Denver Rescue Mission’s Champa House, conducting parenting classes at Agape Christian Church in Five Points, and serving as chaplain at the Volunteers of America’s senior citizen residence, Sunset Park.
The volunteer service that she says “brings me so much joy” has not gone unnoticed.
Excelsior Youth Center acknowledged Kiely’s life trajectory by naming her its Triumphant Woman for 2013; other awards include Service with Style, from the Colorado branch of the Volunteers of America, Denver Health’s Angel Award, and Food Bank of the Rockies’ Heart of Gold Award. Her latest honor came in October, when Denver’s Inner-City Health Center presented her with its Rev. John Shaw Legacy Award. The ceremony took place on a night when she was vacationing in Cabo San Lucas with her family, so she asked one of her Women With a Cause graduates to accept on her behalf. “Everything I’ve done, whatever I’ve accomplished, is not about me,” she explains. “It’s about the women we help.”
Leo Kiely, whom she met when he was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and she was teaching inner-city Head Start classes by day and taking graduate classes at night, has held a succession of increasingly high-powered jobs with Ventura Coastal Corp., a division of 7Up, Frito-Lay and MillerCoors. She rolls her eyes heavenward and smiles as she describes how they met. “We both hung out in the same bar,” she recalls. “We’d made eye contact a few times, and after awhile Leo introduced himself. That was at the end of January in 1970. We became engaged on Valentine’s Day and were married on May 16.” Leo, she says, “Was the first person who loved me unconditionally. He thought I was beautiful and the most interesting person ever.”
He retired as MillerCoors’ chief executive officer in 2011, and remains busy today making movies with their son, Bill, a Hollywood-based producer-director, building houses in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and investing in such business ventures as D Bar restaurant.
Two of the Kiely-produced movies can be seen on Netflix. Barely Lethal stars Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Alba, and Adderal Diaries features James Franco. Another, starring J.K. Simmons and with the working title of The Bachelors, is “in the can” and awaiting release on the film festival circuit. Once that is done, the movie will have its world premiere in Denver as a benefit for Women With a Cause.
“I have such an incredible respect for my husband,” Kiely says. “He shares so many of my visions and provides such encouragement. When he proposed—and I think I’ve told this story a million times—he said, ‘Marry me and I’ll make the money that will let you save the world.’
“Sure, he has helped me get a lot of my projects off the ground, but it’s not just a case of him making the money and me hanging out at the country club writing checks. I like to make a direct impact, to be very involved in each and every aspect.”
The inspiration for WWAC—an all-volunteer organization made up of women who use their gifts and talents to help alleviate poverty and change the lives of women worldwide—came in 2005, after Kiely attended a World Vision AIDS Day breakfast. She was so touched by stories of economic and personal hardships experienced by women in developing nations that she literally took action immediately. Initially, WWAC established two centers in rural areas of India where women from the Dalit and other oppressed castes were taught to sew. “After teaching 800-plus Indian women how to sew and support themselves and their families for the rest of their lives by making and selling clothing, jewelry and tote bags we turned that operation over to Operation Mercy, India.” WWAC also has helped establish a primary school in Uttamary, India, and conducted similar programs in Ethiopia, Ghana and Thailand. There, women—many of whom were escaping the sex trade—learned to construct, market and sell goods that helped support the shelter they had found at the faith-based New Life Center in Chiang Mai. In recent years, WWAC has shifted its emphasis to empowering local women.
The WE Initiative, which WWAC launched in 2011, assists women who are homeless, from low-income households, or have served in the military establish careers in dental hygiene, the nursing profession or the hospitality industry. “Women With a Cause is so much a part of me, but it’s not about me,” Kiely says. “It’s about our women and their families… offering up services that weren’t available to my mother and me: things like education, job training, quality daycare, safe housing, mentoring and guidance toward healthy lifestyle choices.”
In 1947, Kiely’s mother found herself single and pregnant by a married man. “This was in New York City, where she could have had an abortion, but she chose not to. Even back then, New York was a progressive city, but even still, it wasn’t acceptable for a single woman to be having a baby. So we moved to Chicago, where she had family, and I was born.” Kiely describes her mom as someone who was “very bright, with great math skills and a great command of the English language. We spent the first couple of years of my life in Chicago before moving to Philadelphia, where her mother’s twin sister lived and could babysit Susan while her mother worked as a bookkeeper in a store that sold televisions.”
Things remained “pretty stable,” until her mother lost her job. Then began a series of moves up and down the East Coast as her mother went from job to job. When her mother managed a motel, Kiely cleaned its rooms. When she worked in a bowling alley restaurant, Kiely washed dishes and worked the cash register. “My mother expected me to be a little adult, and she gave me responsibilities no child should have. By fourth grade I was working. By fifth grade I could balance a checkbook. “I was also tall, skinny and dyslexic, which led to bullying. I missed out on a lot because we moved so much; by the time I reached high school I had attended 13 schools.”
When her mother did marry, it was to a man that Kiely bluntly describes as a pervert.
“He abused me from the time I was 5 until the time I was 12. But the more I look into it, I realize that he had been a victim of abuse, molested at the private boys school that he attended.”
Kiely now realizes that her mother suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Still, “She was very mindful of getting me to understand that all people must be treated equally.” A cross-burning at the home directly across from where she was living in Levittown, PA, while she was in fourth grade, “Was the first reality for me that life could be difficult, and it was just one of many experiences that prepared me to try to make the world better.”
Today, Kiely, who turns 70 in January, and her husband divide their time between Denver, where in addition to her work with WWAC she serves on the boards of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Emily Griffith Technical College and the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, and Hermosa Beach, CA, where she enjoys cooking and spending time with her grandchildren. The last thing she wants to become is “A crotchety old lady unwilling to embrace change. I want to die having young people say ‘She was so much fun.’”
BIO: Joanne Davidson “retired” after spending 30 years as society editor of The Denver Post. She keeps busy by writing articles on a freelance basis for The Post, as well as for Colorado Expression and Denver Life magazines.