When Kris Canfield was a girl, she could run circles around others on the softball and soccer fields, but did not have the confidence to be “cute in a dress.” She needed a role model to show her girls can wear cleats and heels — now she’s making sure girls in Tarrant County have that example.
Canfield, 34, is the chief development officer of Girls Inc. of Tarrant County, a nonprofit organization that helps mentor, develop and uplift young girls. Programming is available for girls ages 5 through their freshman year of college.
The nonprofit works in school systems: The Tarrant County chapter is in Fort Worth, Arlington and Crowley ISDs. The programming team has backgrounds in social work and work with the students on college exposure, career readiness or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
For the younger girls, the programming is centered more around literacy, especially for the Spanish-speaking students, Canfield said. The mentors also do anti-bullying work and self-esteem building activities.
“I look back at my life as a child and think, ‘Man, if I had had that constant person that just really cared about me and showed me all these different things that were out there in the world or how to navigate different things, whether it was about my body growing or my mental well-being the past year,’” Canfield said. “It’s just really inspiring to be a part of. We’re doing that holistic approach, it’s not just, ‘Oh, hi, how are you? OK, goodbye.’ It’s, ‘What do you need? Help me help you. How can I help you get there?’”
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When she started at Girls Inc., Canfield brought a fresh perspective and energy to the office, James-Harvey said.
“Kris is a runner, and even bringing that part of her life into the organization and encouraging others to think about health and taking care of themselves,” she said. “She’s the one that started a fitness challenge at the office. It was just a way not only to really encourage all of us to be healthy and be active, but it was also a great team-building activity.”
As she continued her work, James-Harvey said, Canfield was committed to helping as many girls access the program as possible. Canfield always participates in activities with the mentees.
“She really immersed herself so that she could understand not only programs, but the girls that we were serving in a much more personal way,” she said. “She’s very comfortable being who she is, and bringing her whole self to the role. And that sometimes means, as a leader, that you may have to stand up for things that you know to be right and in the best interest of girls and she was always comfortable doing that. And I respect that about her.”
In her role, Canfield helps raise money, market, manage social media and work with local foundations. All her work is helping more girls access services she is passionate about. Currently, the program serves about 500 girls, she said.
Part of her drive can be attributed to her parents, who Canfield said are high-achievers who love serving people.
“I learned from them at an early age to work hard, be my best, serve others and to never be scared to stand alone,” she said. “Both of my parents, Gary and Jeaneen, have master’s degrees and my mom recently graduated with her PhD and works in higher education.”
Other mentors helped her get to her position. Before taking her job at Girls Inc., Canfield called her mentor, Jill vanEgmond, who is the executive director of Lake McMurty Friends in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
During the call, vanEgmond said she knew Canfield would be a good fit for the job and would take it to new heights.
“She’s got amazing organizational skills, and a strong work ethic,” vanEgmond said. “She’s driven and ambitious, but most of all, she’s passionate, and she’s kind. When there’s a mission that speaks to her, she puts everything she has to work towards that mission.”
Canfield and vanEgmond met when they worked at Feed the Children together. What started as a mentor/mentee relationship changed into equal colleagues, vanEgmond said.
“She has become someone I really value as a sounding board for new and innovative ideas in the fundraising profession,” vanEgmond said. “She and I have a call once a month where we can bounce fundraising ideas off one another, get fresh perspectives. She still tells me that I’m her mentor, but as far as I’m concerned, she has grown so much in her profession that I see it as very equal colleagues. I learned as much from her now as she does from me.”
Canfield is one of the younger people in the executive level of the company and was even younger when she was named the chief development officer two and a half years ago. Canfield said she can see the skepticism and surprise when she walks into the room some days.
“It’s also just learning how to be confident,” she said. “I’m proud that I’m at this level at this age, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in my career and learning how to balance that confidence with the humility of I’m still learning and I’m here to learn from the professionals in the room.”
That balance is centered around teamwork, and all in the room bringing their individual skills together, she said. Through that, the team can have a lasting impact on girls in the program.
“I grew up in a very small town, (Fletcher, Oklahoma) so everything you saw around you was male-dominated,” Canfield said. “And if you were a female, you were probably a school teacher, something like tha … My dreams were bigger, I don’t know why, but I just always wanted to do something more than just what my little town provided, but I didn’t know what that was.”
Even in college at Mid-America Christian University in Oklahoma, Canfield said she wanted a woman role model to help her with her aspirations. Instead, she was left to figure a lot out on her own.
But in figuring it out, Canfield found herself as a leader in her family and later, in Fort Worth. Although she is not the oldest of all her siblings, Canfield said she still served in the big sister role.
“Me and my older sister were 13 months apart, so we are already really close in age, but because I was more outgoing and more of an extrovert, my two younger siblings gravitated toward me,” she said. “And I loved it. I love taking care of my siblings.”
Sometimes, though, Canfield felt there were times when she felt she “couldn’t take a day off.”
“And I think that’s part of leadership,” she said. “I think you feel like you always have to be on, and you always have to have it together, because you’ve got all these people looking to you to lead them. And I think one of the best things about the pandemic was all of us realizing, ‘I’ve got to take care of me first. And I’ve got to find that balance because if I am not good myself, then I’m not leading or being the older sibling well.’ ”
In taking care of herself, Canfield runs or bikes on Trinity River, spends time with her dog and family, and finds other ways to be active.
She also tries to be herself, which is something she notices the girls in the program need.
“I think sometimes when adults get with the girl, they want to be too much too fast,” Canfield said. “Just be yourself, because it connects, and girls want to see a confident woman. You can be the manager of Sonic and be a competent woman and that’s appealing.”
Society places too much emphasis on defining success as working at a Fortune 500 company, she said.
“There’s lots of ways to be successful and embracing that to show the girl, ‘This is success, and I’m proud of what I’ve done here.’ I think that resonates more than trying to be something that you’re not,’’ she said.
Something she said she notices many girls need help with is self-esteem, which she also struggled with when she was younger.
“As a girl, I was made fun of because I wasn’t the thinnest in my class,” she said. “I was the athletic body, so as a young girl, you’re not the zero and you’re not the bean pole, but I was great on the field.”
Those insecurities carried with her mentally and physically, and Canfield said she sees school can still be hard on girls.
“Media is so hard on girls and makes you feel like you have to look a certain way and be a certain way and dress a certain way that we’ve lost what it means to just be yourself, and that’s enough, and you’re beautiful as you are,” she said. “I think the more that we, as women, can really just strive to do that with other girls and show them how you are right now which is perfect — I think we’ll have a lot better and more equitable society.”
Kris Canfield Bio
Birthplace: Fletcher, Oklahoma
Moved to Fort Worth: Early 2016 – She said it didn’t take me long to fall in love with Fort Worth community and quickly call it home.
Family: Both parents Gary and Jeaneen Canfield, three siblings; Sam and Ryan Ledlow, Cass Canfield, Josh and Kayleigh Canfield brother-in-law, sister-in-law, a nephew Kasyn Ledlow, a niece Wren Canfield and a Havanese dog (Globe).
Education: Bachelor’s in English literature and multicultural studies from Mid-America Christian University in Oklahoma. She also played collegiate soccer and softball and recently completed the Non-Profit Management Certification from CNM, formerly called Center for Nonprofit Management.
Work experience: She has been in the nonprofit sector for 10 years, in development and fundraising. “A lot of my experience was internationally based but working with Girls Inc. locally has allowed me to build community partners across Tarrant County. I have been blown away at how our community bands together to help each other!”
Volunteer experience: SEEK the Peace, Habitat for Humanity, and a variety of children’s sports organizations.
First job: Feed the Children, HQ in Oklahoma City. “Feed the Children poured into me as an employee and encouraged me to grow as an employee and leader on my own! There are so many wonderful people there that I am still connected with today!”
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Listen first, be kind second and respond third. Embrace change and challenges, they become the moments that define you and the atmosphere you choose to dwell in.
Best advice ever received: Never stop growing and learning. The minute you think you know it all is the minute you become a manager and not a leader.
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.