With backing from Oprah, a young local philanthropist goes global

Kasondra Cohen-Herrendorf heads two charitable foundations whose efforts include providing mental-health resources and educational opportunities for youths.

Before Kasondra Cohen-Herrendorf tells me how she forged a charitable partnership with Oprah Winfrey, she recalls a pivotal conversation with her late father.

“I have always had a passion for philanthropy, but it was a little bit hard for my dad to get behind,” she says of Chicago-based financial trader Hershel Herrendorf, who passed away suddenly in 2014. “Usually he would say to me, Kas, first you make money, then you give it away. You don’t have money to give away.”

Her response? “I don’t care; I love to give back. And so I say that the silver lining to losing my father is that I get to be the philanthropist that I always dreamed of.”

Cohen-Herrendorf went on to become CEO of the Herrendorf Family Foundation (HFF), whose youth-focused efforts span Vancouver, Chicago and Israel. She’s also founder and CEO of the Face of Today Foundation, which concentrates on providing mental health resources to Canadian youth. Face of Today, founded in 2009, opened a youth resource and support centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in May 2019.

“For me with Face of Today, it’s been all about how do I maximize helping youth and providing them with the best resources and opportunities,” says Cohen-Herrendorf, a BCBusiness 30 Under 30 winner in 2017.

At the centre, 99 percent of participants are BIPOC, and the vast majority live in social housing. The goal is to offer them well-rounded support and a sense of camaraderie, Cohen-Herrendorf says.

The facility, which has 30 community partners, impacted 3,920 youths from September 2020 through this December. It also provided 2,706 hours of mentorship, 261 hours of free private tutoring, and 390 activity sessions devoted to everything from leadership and culture to fitness and music—as well as funding for 74 hours of private therapy.

The centre offers after-school group programs, too, along with awareness workshops covering issues such as mental health, financial literacy and body positivity.

Cohen-Herrendorf and her small team also run a food program for the kids. “A lot of them don’t get any kind of nutrients at home or in their schools,” she says. From last September through this December, the centre provided 5,742 meals and 14,825 snacks.

When the onsite gym has been open, many of the youths took part in exercise sessions. During COVID, outdoor activities have included trips to nearby Victory Square, mini golf and bike rides around Stanley Park.

“I’ve been really proud of everything that our team has been able to do, given the pandemic,” Cohen-Herrendorf says. “We’ve been able to stay true to our values and our goals of really engaging our kids, and giving them those resources that they wouldn’t normally have.”

What’s her personal motivation? Cohen-Herrendorf says she grew up dyslexic, an experience that prompted her to start an endowment fund for kids with learning disabilities while a student at Collingwood School. “I grew up with all of the resources, with my family that supported me with that challenge,” says the daughter of local entrepreneur and philanthropist Jacqui Cohen.

As a result, Cohen-Herrendorf felt compelled to become a mental-health advocate. “I believe that everybody struggles with mental health,” she says. “But for so long, we associated mental health with being weak or not feeling OK or not right, and it’s not true.”

Oprah gets on board

When it comes to the HFF’s global reach, Cohen-Herrendorf explains that her father was born in Haifa, Israel, and moved to Chicago as a child. After the two attended the final Oprah Winfrey Show taping at United Center in 2011, she began trying to connect with the broadcasting legend. “Somehow, the universe seemed to align in my favour.”

Over the past year or so, the HFF has established an alliance with Winfrey’s organization, Cohen-Herrendorf says. “We started with the idea of having speakers for our Live Summit, which is bringing kids from Chicago and Vancouver together virtually with speakers.”

One of the speakers at the pilot for the summit, whose second edition took place in September, was Oprah herself. “I believe your get your power through knowledge and information,” Winfrey says in her video appearance. “And I know that is also the mission of the Herrendorf Family Foundation.”

The HFF is now the contributing founder of education and youth projects for the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, Cohen-Herrendorf says. “It’s all in the beginning stages, but again, with patience and perseverance, I believe that this can become something super unique and very, very special, especially for the kids.”

Asked what’s next, Cohen-Herrendorf says the HFF is building a support centre in Haifa for Israel Defense Forces soldiers. Each year, 2,400 soldiers will have access to the facility. “When I found out the magnitude of impact we could be having in somewhere like Israel, I was like, Wow, imagine what we could to in Vancouver as well.”

In her hometown, the goal is open a large independent space for the HFF within three to five years, she says. “Because at the end of the day, we just want to be able to give as much opportunity to these kids as possible.”

The HFF also supports other organizations. Over the past five years, it’s given roughly US$6 million to such causes, Cohen-Herrendorf says. And because the foundation covers all of Face of Today’s administrative costs, “when we do get donors, all the money can go to programming,” she adds. “My goal is to continue to expand the organization and engage more and more donors so they can give to that hands-on Vancouver impact.”

Don’t reinvent the wheel

What advice does Cohen-Herrendorf have for people and businesses wanting to get started in philanthropy? “Don’t re-create the wheel,” she says. “Just work with what’s there and make it better. If we all just take the time to work together instead of individually, I think we could maximize our efforts.”

Cohen-Herrendorf cites the We Got You fund, which provides additional support to young people who win university scholarships. After the HFF recently helped launch the fund in Chicago, a locally headquartered bank got on board.

“Even though we’re a family foundation and we support our own initiatives, there’s never enough money to just do it on your own,” Cohen-Herrendorf says. “You should always want to engage other people to support to make it better, to make a higher impact.”

That’s why the Herrendorf Family Foundation aims to leverage global partners and celebrities as ambassadors to bring attention to mental health issues, Cohen-Herrendorf explains.

“We want to engage as many different organizations as we can to come together for the same purpose,” she says. “And I feel extremely passionate about not sometimes spending so much time on, like, how do we get the most limelight? It’s not about that. It’s about doing things because you want to do it and you believe in it, and actually following your heart.”