“If I do something, I do it because I am passionate about it. In order for it to be meaningful and sustainable, it has to be driven by passion or else it would be a failure.” It’s obvious from a short conversation with Michele Kong that these words truly drive how she lives her life.
Kong is a mother of two young boys, a pediatric intensivist, a physician scientist and founder of an international nonprofit with her husband, Julian Maha, M.D. She juggles all this while delivering the perfect balance of passion for each commitment in her life.
Michele Kong, M.D., is an associate professor in Pediatric Critical Care in the UAB Department of Pediatrics and Children’s of Alabama. She was recently selected as the junior faculty recipient of the 2015 Dean’s Excellence Award for Service. The Dean’s Excellence Awards are annual honors to recognize outstanding contributions made by faculty across the UAB School of Medicine. Kong’s award was largely in regards to her outstanding impact on the autistic community with the nonprofit she and her husband co-founded, KultureCity.
The award in recognition for service is only fitting considering her views on the topic. “Service is the foundation of our life, our people, our community,” Kong continues. “Ultimately everything is about service. Service is what connects you to the next person. Service should be the core of everything we do.”
Kong’s background helps to explain her dedication for serving others. She grew up in a fishing village in Malaysia. An average morning conversation would be, “Did you get breakfast today?” Being exposed to this level of need so early in life put a fire in Kong to always strive to be the best she could be. Fortunately, Kong said, her family always had food, water and shelter. Kong’s mother was an elementary school teacher and her father taught and started vocational training schools. Kong is confident she earned her sense of drive, passion and service from her parents.
Her father’s career required a bit of travel to start up schools in different areas, which had an impact on her views. Kong said, “Traveling so much exposed me to the diversity that exists in our world.” It wasn’t until later that she would experience first-hand the diversity that exists in the world of autism.
Kong completed her medical degree at University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. In a serendipitous moment, on a flight back to school, a man sat next to her that would later be her husband and the father to her two children: Abram, 8, and Juda, 5.
It wasn’t until her oldest son, Abram, was diagnosed with autism at age 4 that Kong and her husband’s eyes were truly opened to the struggles and challenges that special needs families and children encounter. Kong and her husband, who also happens to be a service-oriented physician, were fuelled by a desire to make life better for their son. They realized that a network for families with autism did not currently exist and decided to take action. KutureCity was formed.
KultureCity is an impact-driven nonprofit founded in 2013 in Birmingham with the mission to create a world where all individuals with autism and their families can be accepted and treated equally. KultureCity fundamentally believes that these children are not limited by their diagnosis and deserve a future without limits. The programs reflect the mission, which is “to change the kulture on how autism is viewed in our world today.” To date, KultureCity has helped more than 16,294 individuals with its toy and tablet programs, as well as the lifeBOKS initiative that helps prevent wandering and wandering related accidents/deaths in children with autism. The nonprofit has also launched several sensory-friendly initiatives that focus on making local attractions and restaurants sensory friendly. For example, KultureCity has partnered with the Birmingham Zoo, the McWane Science Center, UAB Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, and Post Office Pies to embrace the concept of helping businesses and community organizations better understand the needs of these individuals.
“At the end of the day, we are most proud of the community of acceptance that we have created. A community where all individuals with autism and their families not only feel loved but empowered.”
Kong’s dedication to service and the community is difficult to go unnoticed by her peers and the community. Already in 2016, Kong and Maha were selected to receive the Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award given by Leadership Vestavia Hills at the 26th Annual Community Leadership Awards. Additionally, she was selected by the UAB Commission on the Status of Women to receive the Outstanding Woman in the Community Award.
This is not even including the awards received by KultureCity. Just to name a few, Microsoft Corporation named KultureCity as one of 10 nonprofits to partner with for its Windows 10 Upgrade Your World Initiative. Tom’s of Maine selected KultureCity as the top nonprofit in the state of Alabama. Additionally, GuideStar and greatnonprofits.org named KultureCity the best-reviewed special needs nonprofit in the country in 2014 and 2015.
Kong reflects on the awards and recognition, “Everything that we do, is out of the desire to make it just a little easier for these children and their families. Although the awards and recognition are an amazing honor, it is not the reason behind our actions but rather is a by-product of what we do.”
Among all of Kong’s passions, she is most looking forward to the day when we have true acceptance of these children in the community.
March 23, 2016