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A Voice for Children
“Empowering people of all ages through an array of human services and advocacy.” That’s Waypoint’s mission statement. The organization’s director of advocacy, Keith Kuenning, lives by those words.
There are a lot of people in New Hampshire who don’t have a voice of their own. As director of Waypoint’s NH Children’s Lobby, Kuenning’s job, along with his colleague John Dejoie, is to raise his voice on their behalf.
“We’re giving a voice to the voiceless,” he said.
At 10:30 pm, the night before this interview took place, Kuenning received a call about budget cuts that would have a serious impact on Waypoint’s programs, which provide critical and life-changing services to children, youth, and families. By 5:30 am he was up and trying to find solutions. With a $25 million decrease in the Health and Human Services budget, this year has been a challenge for Waypoint and their advocacy team.
Every year, Kuenning and Dejoie go through over 1,000 legislative bills to make sure Waypoint can continue to fulfill their mission.
With each bill, they search closely for details that will affect their clients—children, youth, adults, seniors—and spend hours narrowing those 1,000 bills down to 100 of direct interest. However, no one can manage that many bills. So, in collaboration with other agencies, that number drops down to 50, and eventually 15 bills that Waypoint will take lead on.
At that point, their job is all about maintaining a presence with the legislators. They attend hearings, point out flaws and do an immense amount of persuading. Ultimately, each legislator has to make their vote, so it’s Kuenning’s job to make sure they’re aware of the effect their vote will have.
“For those impacted, these are life and death decisions,” said Kuenning, and he makes sure the legislators are aware of it.
“At a young age, I decided to spend my life helping people who find life really difficult,” Kuenning said, which is why he went to law school right after graduating from college. He received his Juris Doctor from The American University - Washington College of Law, and a Master of Arts in Law and International Affairs from The American University - School of International Service.
With an elderly father and relative with special needs, he’s always understood the importance of service and helping others. On top of all of that, he makes sure to take time for his family life, spending time outside on the water, and tinkering with cars—a favorite pastime. It’s all about balance and building a strong personal foundation from which he can be of greater service to others.
Ten years ago, while serving as executive director of the NH Coalition Against Homelessness, Kuenning decided to join Waypoint where he succeeded the longtime advocacy director, Jack Lightfoot. He’s been there ever since.
“It’s a great moment when we pass a bill that’s going to help someone,” Kuenning said.
But things don’t always go that way. It’s a real blow when legislators don’t fund something they’ve been warned about. The ups and downs are part of the job, but Kuenning, DeJoie, and others like them in the state, never stop fighting.
In his time at Waypoint, one of Kuenning’s most memorable victories was helping to establish the Office of the Child Advocate. Politicians come and go, but this office does not. It provides impartial judgment and oversight to the NH Department for Children, Youth and Families, ensuring that it serves the best interests of children. This was a huge victory for children in New Hampshire.
Even with victories like that, their work never ends and they can always use your support. Whether by bringing issues forward to the Advocacy team, testifying in hearings, connecting with legislators or supporting their advocacy by donating, you can make an impact. To learn more, visit https://waypointnh.org/programs/advocacy