When Irene van der Zande stepped between a group of children and a man threatening to kidnap one of them in 1985, she had one goal: Protect the children.
A young mother, she was leading the group — which included her own two children — on a field trip to the city art museum. After visiting the exhibit of merry-go-round animals, they stopped for a drink at the fountain.
That was when they noticed a man following them.
“I said if you’re scared, hang onto me,” van der Zande recalls. “I crossed the street like an octopus with all these little hands hanging onto me.”
But the man kept following the group. Then, in the lobby of the bus station, surrounded by people, he charged at the group, his arm outstretched, and threatened to take one of the girls.
“Everybody froze, except me,” says van der Zande. “I put myself between him and the kids and I started yelling, and then I ordered a bystander to come and help us. When he came to stand next to us, the guy ran away.”
“The kids were fine,” she says. “From their perspective, I yelled and the bad guy ran away.”
But van der Zande wasn’t fine.
“I kept thinking, ‘What if he’d knocked me down? What if he’d even touched one of the children?’” she says. “I knew I would do my best to stop him, but I didn’t know how.”
Shaken by the experience and wanting to learn how she could protect her children, van der Zande took a self-defense workshop.
“And then I started to ask myself, ‘What if I am not around to protect them? And what about all the other children that this very troubled man might have gone on to assault?’”
She didn’t have the answers, but the experience and its aftermath left her determined to do something to help people build the skills and confidence to take charge of their own safety.
Four years later, in 1989, Kidpower was born.
Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International is a global nonprofit that focuses on personal safety education for all ages. Over three decades, with van der Zande at the helm, it has developed a reputation as a leader in evidence-based personal safety expertise, reaching more than 8 million people around the world.
Prior to founding Kidpower, van der Zande was a published author who worked as a consultant in Santa Cruz County, California. With a busy career and home life, starting a nonprofit wasn’t on her radar; however, van der Zande simply couldn’t ignore the gap in services that she had discovered following her ordeal.
“The child safety programs I found at that time taught about Stranger Danger and Good Touch/Bad Touch,” she remembers. “They seemed scary and confusing rather than being effective.”
To remedy the issue, van der Zande leaned into her skills as a community organizer; she brought together parents, educators, therapists, martial artists, and public safety officials.
“Our goal was to figure out how best to teach safety skills to children in ways that would be empowering, effective, and fun, rather than using fear to teach about danger,” she says. “Instead of talking about danger, we wanted to provide children with skills for taking charge of their safety and well-being.”
Along with refining the message and approach, van der Zande knew having a great team in place would be important for getting the organization off the ground.
“I asked my friend Ellen Bass, whose daughter was in that group of young children, and who is the author of a bestselling, ground-breaking book called The Courage to Heal — for survivors of childhood sexual abuse — to be our board president, to give us her wisdom, and lend us the credibility of her name,” says van der Zande.
“Our program co-founder Timothy Dunphy is now an eighth-degree black belt, an international champion in taekwondo, and a reiki master,” she says. “Timothy was my teaching partner in the early years of Kidpower as we figured out how to make it fun to stay safe.”
Although the initial focus was on children, it didn’t take long for the scope to expand in response to the growing demand for safety education — which didn’t surprise van der Zande.
“We all want our kids to have safe, happy lives, free from violence or abuse,” she says. “We want them to be able to have more fun and fewer problems with people, including other kids, family, and friends. As they become more independent, we want them to be able to navigate their worlds with safety and confidence.”
The same is true for adults, of course. The Kidpower executive director explains: “We want to know how to protect young people and vulnerable adults in our care and how to prepare and empower them to take charge of their own well-being. We also want to know how to take charge of our own safety and well-being.”
Thirty years later, Kidpower teaches people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life how to stay safe, act wisely, and believe in themselves.
“Although some of the problems have changed, our wishes for joy, friendship, success, health, and safety in life are the same — for our children and for ourselves,” van der Zande says. “Knowing how to prevent and solve problems with people increases happiness and confidence and competence, and reduces anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness.”
Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, Kidpower tailors its programs for the group it’s serving. Each workshop includes a combination of knowledge and skills with opportunities for coaching and practice.
“The skills we teach include awareness, assessing and recognizing potential trouble, moving out of reach, boundary-setting, protecting our feelings, staying in charge of our emotional triggers, advocating for safety, being persistent in getting help, and physical self-defense to escape an attack,” says van der Zande.
Inclusiveness is also an important pillar of the work today, she emphasizes: “People who face prejudice because of differences such as special needs are much more vulnerable for being targeted for bullying, abuse, and assault. We adapt our programs based on what people can do so that everyone is successful in practicing the skills taught.”
While the content may seem heavy to some, van der Zande enjoys all aspects of the work, “because we focus on hope and not on despair or fear,” she says. “I enjoy the ‘aha!’ moment when people realize they truly have the power to take charge of their safety and protect their loved ones most of the time.”
And when it does get overwhelming, van der Zande finds herself applying the very skills Kidpower teaches: setting boundaries to ensure space for self-care, using positive self-talk, screening out negative messages, and asking for help instead of trying to go it alone.
Her advice to those who might feel overwhelmed by things happening in the world right now is simple: Focus on what you can do.
“Watching upsetting news over and over can feel as if we are doing something, but actually creates anxiety without making anyone safer,” she says. “Focusing on what each of us can do instead of all we cannot makes a huge difference in being able to keep our emotional balance.”
To learn more about Kidpower, visit kidpower.org.
THE KIDPOWER EMOTIONAL SAFETY SCREEN
The Kidpower Emotional Safety Screen is one of the 12 emotional safety skills Kidpower teaches. Here’s how you do it:
• Lift your hands, palms facing out, and spread your fingers wide.
• Tilt your hands inward and bring one hand over the other so your fingers criss-cross.
• Lift your hands in front of your face.
“You can see holes, like a screen,” says van der Zande. “If you have a screen on a window or a door, it lets it fresh air and keeps out the bugs.”
The idea behind the gesture is to keep negative energy out while letting useful information in.
“For example, a mom says, ‘You are lazy because you didn’t take out the trash.’ The kid uses the screen to take in the useful information — I forgot to take out the trash — and screens out the anger and insults,” says van der Zande. “Then, of course, we teach children to say, ‘I know I forgot to take out the trash and I feel sad when you call me lazy in an angry voice. Please just remind me in a regular voice.’ And we teach adults to listen.”
The screen “helps you think clearly,” she says. It can give you the chance to pause and thoughtfully sort through big emotions. “If you’re a caring person, your heart’s wide open — [but] everything in is too much.”
EMBRACING THE CURLS
Although van der Zande has had curly hair her whole life, she didn’t always like it.
“I used to hate my curly hair,” she says. “Everybody had nice, smooth, flowing hair and my hair was wild.”
Her disdain for her curls led to her taking extreme measures to get her hair under control.
“With the help of a friend, I did Toni’s Super Perm,” she remembers. “I put it on my hair and held it straight. That is not healthy for your hair. I did that when I was about 15 and it made my hair so straight that it poked. Like it would make bruises on my skin.”
But no matter how hard she tried to keep it straight, her curls refused to be tamed.
“[My efforts to straighten it] never actually worked very well,” she admits. “Well. Except that brief time with the Toni’s Super Perm, then it was straighter than any human would want.”
After years of trying to straighten her hair into submission, she gave up fighting it. A good haircut and a few good products have played a key role in helping her to embrace her natural curls.
“Eventually, I started to like it — and then to love it,” she says.