Fort Wayne is a giving community. It’s home to many nonprofits that serve the needs of local people daily. But in the mix, there are also local nonprofits with a mission to channel northeast Indiana’s support to neighbors across international waters.
The Mighty Acorn Foundation was founded by a female entrepreneur in Fort Wayne with such a mission—to impact the lives of children who might otherwise have fallen by the wayside in their own communities. Aggie wears a Matilda Jane dress in Kenya.
It started with Denise DeMarchis, the late founder of Matilda Jane Clothing and a local philanthropist. Denise started Matilda Jane Clothing in 2006 as a creative outlet to make children’s clothes and positively impact the lives of others at the same time.
As a local artist with a keen eye for pattern matching to make girls’ dresses, she rapidly grew the company through a passionate direct sales team called Trunk Keepers and a dedicated customer base. But despite her national success, her desire with Matilda Jane was first and foremost to help little girls stay young, adventurous, and joyful for as long as possible.
“It’s all about keeping a little girl…a little girl,” DeMarchis said. “Keeping her youthful. Keeping her spinning and twirling and carefree. And most importantly, bringing her happiness.”
So when she and her husband David DeMarchis sold a majority share of the Matilda Jane in 2012, Denise found another way to help children.
She learned that an orphanage in Kitale, Kenya, where she had donated clothing in the past, was looking to build an additional orphanage to keep 100 girls out of the village slums. This need inspired the DeMarchis’s to start the Mighty Acorn Foundation in the same manner they grew the success of Matilda Jane. They just decided to do it.
“The whole thing is quite amazing, because much like the start of Matilda Jane (we had no idea how to start our own company), we had no idea what we were doing when it came to creating a licensed 501c3 charity and international sponsorship program, but we figured it out,” David says.
Denise took the first team to Kenya in 2012.
In an act of goodwill, the couple covered the total cost of the additional orphanage. Denise’s first trip to Kenya was to be present for the groundbreaking, and upon her return, she was so impacted by her visit that she wanted to share her experience with family and friends in Fort Wayne, too.
Denise’s close friend and business partner, Lynette Heisler, was with her on the first trip.
“Upon return, there was a feeling of ‘’we’re not done here,’” Heisler recalls. “Denise was moved by the girls of the orphanage and how they were like girls at home. Like the heart of Matilda Jane, it became about reinstating their innocence and dignity.” Denise Walsh plays with children outside the orphanage.
Denise encouraged David and others to make the trip to Kenya and recruited family friend, Denise Walsh, to be their guide. Upon return from the second trip, with greater support and passion behind them, the group created a sponsorship program, which became the Mighty Acorn Foundation. Its mission was to connect families in the U.S. with individual children in need.
Through sponsorships, these children received the financial support they needed for housing, food, clothing, and medical care, while also allowing the sponsor family to be intimately connected to the child’s progress.
“Just like Matilda Jane, we hired some key people in the beginning,” David says. “For Mighty Acorn, it was Denise Walsh who was the key hire.”
To this day, Walsh is the only paid employee of the Foundation. Another key aspect of its creation was the early support and passion of Matilda Jane customers and enthusiasts along with the support of other local companies that stood by its mission.
“Our biggest support in the local Fort Wayne area were from Matilda Jane Clothing and other business owners that were connected with Denise and David,” Walsh says.
Lynette is a Fort Wayne resident who sponsors boys in Kenya.
Matt Kelley of One Lucky Guitar, John Henry of JH Specialties, Charley Heiny an attorney, and three teachers from Canterbury School all either took a second trip to Kitale with the Foundation or sent one of their staff members in support.
“Canterbury school has continued to stay connected through donating 30 laptop commuters to our new high school last year,” Walsh says. “They developed a pen pal connection with some of our grade school kids and their 5-6 graders.”
To date, the orphanage houses and sponsors more than 200 children. But it’s not just about surviving the day; it’s about building a future by equipping them with education and career exposure, as well as regular community service projects, so they are empowered to help others.
“We are continuing to develop programs for our kids to help them successfully transition into the local community once they are out of school,” Walsh says. “How empowering is it for a child from the depths of poverty to be realize they have the ability to help someone else—to make a difference in the life of another? These service projects have been incredibly powerful.”
Denise meets with the children on Mount Elgon for a service project in April 2014.
Although Denise DeMarchis lost her battle with cancer in 2015, her spirit lives on in the lives of others she impacted near and far.
“I’ll tell you what,” she once said. “Do what you love, don’t look back, and never take it for granted that you are able to choose the life that you lead.”
Visit the Mighty Acorn Foundation’s website for more information.