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Let Your Heart Guide Your Service

After leaving her job as a chemical engineer, Michelle Foster jumped straight into her passion of empowering people. Now her organization, Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action, employs over 70 people and works to empower thousands of West Virginians a year.

The White House Office of Public Engagement and Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships honors 10 individuals who are doing tremendous work in the fields of fatherhood and low-income men and boys. Because of her work in this field Michelle Mickle Foster is being recognized as a Champion of Change.

My journey into my current career as a non-profit CEO was via a very non-traditional route.  I was always good at mathematics and science in high school. A career in chemical engineering was a natural choice for me.  Soon after graduating from the City College of New York, I found myself at a company in Charleston, West Virginia.  Little did I know the life changes that lay ahead!

While working, I became an active volunteer at Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church, a primarily African-American church, located in a poor section of the largest county in the state. During this time, I stirred up skills that I didn’t even know that I had within myself, always being encouraged along the way by my Pastor.  It got to the point where I couldn’t wait for 5:00 PM, so that I could leave my engineering job to volunteer at the church with literacy and other programs that benefitted children.

In 1998, I took a giant leap of faith.  I left my engineering career when the pastor and church leaders decided to invest the church’s resources in supporting my efforts full-time to develop programs that benefited the community.  So, I went from designing chemical plants to designing programs that empowered people.

With the help of God and the support of the church and community, I developed KISRA’s 13 major programs in the areas of education, employment, economic empowerment and behavioral health while securing the necessary funding to operate them.  KISRA has grown to a team of over 70 employees with funding from multiple local, state, and federal sources.  We empower thousands of West Virginians annually. 

The employment division, with the West Virginia Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood Initiative, is funded by the Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families, Office of Family Assistance. Through this initiative, we have given over 1,800 children better dads.  We serve poor fathers in the community and fathers who are within six months of release from prison or previously incarcerated.  These fathers receive guidance on responsible parenting, healthy relationships, money management, and workforce readiness including vocational training and transitional jobs.  We serve these fathers because we want to make life better for the children in our state. 

I wake up every day, thrilled about the fact that I get to serve my community, state and country.  I am very thankful for this honor;  it will fuel our efforts to reach even higher levels of quality service, because the half has not yet been told!

 Michelle Mickle Foster is the CEO of the Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action, Inc.