Philanthropist Gil Kemp understands the transformative power of giving. He has achieved incredible success in business, but nothing has given him greater joy than using the fruits of his labor to help others.
Gil Kemp, a founding member of the Burnett Honors College Dean’s Advisory Board (pictured) and UCF donor, is a lifelong learner who became interested in UCF after hearing about how its innovative honors program is changing lives.
Kemp knows a thing or two about changing lives. He has spent the past 20 years helping Vietnamese children finish high school through the nonprofit Scholarship Program to Enhance Literacy and Learning (SPELL) — which has brought him more joy than any other undertaking in his life
“Although I’m a big believer in trying to plan one’s life and figure out what is important to you and what goals are meaningful at the same time, I think it’s also important to leave ourselves open to serendipity,” Kemp says.
‘Serendipity’ was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, a British nobleman, after reading a fairy tale about three princes from Serendip who always made discoveries they were not looking for on their adventures.
“Serendipity is what brought Gil to the Burnett Honors College,” says Sheila Amin Gutiérrez de Piñeres, dean of the Burnett Honors College. “Elite liberal arts colleges are leaders and innovators in philanthropy. In my first meeting with Gil, I knew that his knowledge, wisdom, and experience would be invaluable to advancing our vision of Cultivating Talent, Inspiring Excellence through access to excellence for high achieving students regardless of circumstance. The Dean’s Advisory Board is instrumental in sharing our vision and mission but also to shaping creative ways for engagement and philanthropy. Gil’s contribution to the BHC has been outstanding and his innovative ideas have been transformational to our being able to reach our goals.”
Kemp’s own adventures began as one of four children of Joan and Walter, a WW II veteran and psychiatrist who continued seeing patients until his 90s. “He was a wonderful role model,” says Kemp, “not only for successful aging but also for caring about people. He set high expectations that we should work hard and succeed at whatever was meaningful to us.”
Kemp followed his two older brothers into boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States. He describes himself as an average athlete at Exeter; it wasn’t until he graduated that he began to excel as a runner, surpassing his brothers’ running abilities.
At that time, it was Exeter tradition for all rising seniors to have a mandatory interview with its one-man college advising department. In Kemp’s case, the advisor decided that he would not be suited for one of the Ivy League colleges typically recommended, because he thought Kemp wasn’t focused enough on his studies.
Nothing was further from the truth, but he dutifully — perhaps even serendipitously — agreed with the advisor’s assessment. He interviewed with two non-Ivy colleges, one of which was Swarthmore College, a small, liberal arts school located about 11 miles from Philadelphia. “I knew nothing about Swarthmore,” Kemp says. “But the interview I had with them changed my life.”
Both colleges followed up with Kemp by providing a score from A to C, which assessed his chances of receiving admission, should he apply. Swarthmore not only gave Kemp a resounding A, guaranteeing admission, but the representative had also included a handwritten note, thanking him for the courtesy of the interview and inviting him to give Swarthmore a chance.
His interest in Swarthmore was sealed when he and his father toured the lush, beautiful campus. He had also tucked away in his mind the power of thanking someone for their time, and a handwritten note.
The Power of Philanthropy
By the time he graduated college, Kemp had solidified his status as an elite athlete; his record for the outdoor mile — 4:15.5 — still stands and earned him a slot in the college’s Garnet Athletics Hall of Fame (pictured left).
He and other athletes were recognized for their achievements by Thomas McCabe, a Swarthmore alumnus and one of the co-founders of Scott Paper who later went on to chair the Federal Reserve Board. Kemp received an engraved watch for his athletic achievements and the Scott Award for Leadership, which McCabe had endowed, with an accompanying $4,000 stipend and an internship with Scott Paper. Kemp saw how that stipend eased some of the financial stress that his father had encumbered in paying tuition for the four Kemp children.
After graduation, Kemp became a financially successful textbook salesman, but he was not motivated by the love of material possessions; rather, he planned to use his wealth to try and make a difference in the lives of others.
Supporting Education in Vietnam
Thanks to Kemp’s grandfather’s early involvement in distance learning and direct mail — he launched the USC School of Music in the 1920s, a precursor of online learning conducted through the US Postal Service and later sold to publishing giant Macmillan — Kemp had an interest in direct mail sales and discovered there was an unmet need for home décor. In 1989, he founded Home Decorators Collection, an extremely successful, high-end, mail-order catalog business that he later sold to The Home Depot.
Through his business, Kemp regularly went to China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil, and had ongoing relationships with companies there. He loved travel, so when one of his friends, Eric Hemel, asked him if he were interested in accompanying him on a walking tour of Vietnam he enthusiastically said yes.
Hemel and Kemp were struck by the incredible beauty of the Vietnamese countryside but also puzzled by the number of children who approached their tour group, proffering trinkets for sale, and wondered why they weren’t in school.
Hemel learned there were many barriers to the children receiving a full primary education, but one of the biggest deterrents was the cost of a public-school education — about $50 a year. Even this relatively small amount was enough to prevent many from receiving much more than a fifth-grade education.
Scholarship Program to Enhance Literacy and Learning (SPELL)
To address this need, Hemel and Kemp created and funded SPELL (Scholarship Program to Enhance Literacy and Learning), which would enable more children to attend school.
To date, thousands of Vietnamese children have benefited from SPELL through school fees, books, book bags, notebooks, school uniforms and bicycles for the children who live long distances from schools. One of the most important parts of the program is extensive after-school tutoring and, in some cases, room, and board.
Realizing this aid to the children effectively stopped after they completed their 12th grade year, the partners began “SPELL Goes to College,” which has provided college scholarships to hundreds of students.
“As we dived deeper into these projects and got to know more about the needs of the people and their communities, we discovered that many of the hospitals in Vietnam were without neonatal devices called CPAPS —continuous positive airway pressure machines — which have been standard in US hospitals for more than 30 years.” As a result, premature babies died or survived with brain damage — unacceptable outcomes that could be improved through philanthropy. Through the Breath of Life program, Kemp and Hemel have deployed hundreds of CPAPS throughout hospitals in Vietnam and a dozen or so other countries.
For Kemp’s philanthropic efforts, “the elements of success are not measured by a financial return, but a spiritual return or by sharing in the success of our students and our babies,” he says. “And I think joy can be a pretty powerful currency. I will never get tired of experiencing it.”
UCF Burnett Honors College Students and Looking Ahead
Kemp hopes that UCF students can one day visit Vietnam to experience all that the country has to offer. If anyone were to spend a week in rural Vietnam among the devastating poverty, he says their eyes would really be opened.
“For the people who live there and grew up in abject poverty, they don’t view themselves as victims,” Kemp says. They are energetic, ambitious and hardworking, and striving to make a better life for themselves and their families. “It might be a cliché, but I think to see that experience makes one count one’s blessings and say, ‘Wow, I really have great opportunities.’”
One of Kemp’s favorite books, Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, focuses on “an individual’s positive aspects and how we can help people succeed,” Kemp says. His research indicates that optimistic, resilient people accomplish more and are more successful, and the good news is that optimism and resilience can be taught.
“Gil is a wonderfully inclusive and engaging gentleman,” says Trevor Brewer ’97, chair of the Burnett Honors College Dean’s Advisory Board. “The experience he brought to the inaugural class of the Dean’s Advisory Board has been invaluable. As an example, Gil suggested board members host consultative lunches to introduce the Honors College and Dean Sheila to our contacts, which has vastly expanded the College’s supporter base. Not only does Gil bring his own good ideas, he also has a special way of encouraging contributions from others. Gil is the best example of an effective board member.”
“We have great students in the Burnett Honors College,” says Kemp. “Their IQs and their SAT scores are not going to change. But their wisdom, their resilience and their optimism — those are things that we can continue to develop. And as part of the Burnett Honors College, I look forward to helping our great students reach their full potential — not only while they’re here, but as they go through their lives.”
To support students in Burnett Honors College, please visit: https://foundation.ucf.edu/givetobhc
-Written by Camille Dolan ’98