By Caroline Kurdej
There’s a reason the hallway leading to Doug Bruno’s office is decorated with hard hats, lunch pails and pictures of steelworkers. “I want my players to walk out the door here, knowing there’s a real-life world out there,” Bruno said.
Kayla Caudle, a rising sophomore on DePaul University’s women’s basketball team, brings a contagious blue-collar work ethic to every day of practice, regardless of her station on the Blue Demon hierarchy.
“Just like work ethic is contagious inside of practice, the willingness to be a servant is also contagious,” Bruno said. “That she cares about serving her fellow humans is contagious as well.”
Caudle’s personal philosophy reflects in her double major of Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies and Political Science. Her social justice roots intertwine with DePaul’s Vincentian mission.
Bruno reflects DePaul’s Vincentian values in his belief that true leadership is founded on service. “She is a true service leader,” Bruno said. Caudle’s service extends into not only the local Chicago community, but hundreds of miles overseas.
DePaul’s basketball players aren’t just talented athletes, “they’re players that are even better people,” Bruno said, “and value what St. Vincent de Paul is all about — service to others.”
“I’m an able-bodied, healthy basketball player,” Caudle said, “who has the opportunity in the world. What am I doing with that?”
Caudle’s family has had orphanages and churches in Haiti for generations — Kayla’s “great grandfather, times five,” from her mother’s side was the emperor of Haiti. Caudle directly descends from Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian independence movement during the French Revolution. “So my family believes,” she said with a laugh.
Empowering children with education
Kayla’s mother, Ruth, died in 2012 from cancer of unknown primary origin when Kayla was just 10 years old. “Growing up, she devoted her entire life to helping other people,” Caudle said. Ruth started by addressing the dire need for education because of the immense disparity in schooling and the educational system. In 2001, Kayla’s parents decided to build the Spirit of Truth school, which began with 30 kids. Now, they’ve grown to 500-600 kids.
Without education, the cycle of poverty continues. And yet, so many parents don’t have the money to send kids to school. Not to mention, many families depend upon their kids as a source of income, and can’t afford to lose it.
“In Haiti, it’s not your right to go to school,” Kayla said, “it’s a privilege.”
Education isn’t at the forefront of the country’s funding policies; reflected by the lack of government-funded schools. Roughly 90% of primary schools in Haiti are private and managed by communities, religious organizations or NGOs such as Spirit of Truth, which provides its kids with a free education, lunch and school supplies. But perhaps most importantly, it provides kids with the shot at a brighter future.
“My mother believed that she was obligated to help other people grow as humans,” Caudle said. “Even when she was sick, she would be in her hospital bed calling different people, or organizing the 5K/10K race we run every year.”
And on the side, Ruth wrote a children’s book to raise money for high schools and churches in any way she could, with 100% of the proceeds funneling directly to the cause.
“Knowing that she cared about other people more so than herself is really eye-opening to me,” Kayla said.
Ruth shines through in the way Kayla looks at the world. Her mother’s legacy lives on long after her death. The formerly Spirit of Truth Schools are now under the Together for Haiti umbrella. The nonprofit continues its mission in putting an end to child poverty and trafficking. by empowering children with education.
“They take after their mom’s heart,” Brian Caudle said of not only his daughter Kayla, but also her older brother Corey, 20, and younger sister Sophie, 14.
When Ruth was alive, she instilled the spirit of giving within her kids. They didn’t feel the need to give each other gifts for Christmas. Instead, they would help out a Haitian family in need by providing them with enough food and cooking oil for a few months.
Last Christmas, the Caudle kids pooled their savings together to feed 400 families. The Christmas before that, they visited their own family in Haiti and spent the night in the orphanage, equipped with new shoes, blankets and medical supplies.
“How am I changing someone else’s life? How am I thinking about someone else, besides myself?” Caudle asked.
The spirit of giving lives on
One of the newer initiatives are “village homes,” located in Ferrier, close to the Dominican Republic’s border. The town is a high-traffic risk area. Kayla describes the community of homes built for children who are in danger of sex trafficking, exploitation or other forms of crimes against humanity. Many times, the children are malnourished, sick and in need of a safe space to call their home.
Kayla’s first steps were taken at 13 months while visiting Haiti. Ruth was thrilled. “I tell Kayla that’s where she mastered the motor skills necessary for Bruno’s fast-paced offense,” Brian said with a laugh.
That fast-paced offense resulted in a shower of confetti following DePaul’s “Three-Peat” victory at the Big East Conference Championship win over Marquette on March 9. Just days later, a new reality hit Caudle. She didn’t know the “craziest week of her freshman year” would ensue the celebration.
On Monday night, after an “amazing experience” and being a part of a championship team, Bruno gave his team two days off.
On Wednesday, news circulated that March Madness might take place, strictly with family members and without fans. The Blue Demon ladies were receiving updates by the hour. And the updates grew progressively worse.
The NBA season was canceled, and the Caudle sensed something worse would be coming for her freshman year career.
While Caudle was devastated when March Madness was officially called off, she kept her head up.
“We knew it had to be canceled,” Caudle said. “But at the same time, what we’re giving up is such a small price for why we’re doing it, and what we’re trying to do. This could save people’s lives by not being together, we don’t really know.”
During the pandemic, the Caudles have teamed up to challenge a new cause. They frequent Beacon Place in Waukegan where they purchase and donate food to the community center. that provides emergency support to local families in need.
Active on the basketball court and in the community
Aside from being active on the basketball court, the Caudle family has also been civically engaged.
“My kids have a unique perspective on race as they had the opportunity to witness the difference in treatment between their parents; a mom constantly under suspicion and a dad moving around with relative impunity,” Brian Caudle said.
Much of the reason Caudle and her siblings attended Black Lives Matter protests in Vernon Hills and Buffalo Grove was because of the racism and discrimination their mother frequently faced — from security guards at malls tracking her moves, to being denied seating at restaurants and receiving declarations of being called savage.
“My family is half white, half black,” Caudle said. “But being half white doesn’t take away from the injustices we still face because of our skin color.”
Caudle made a Black Lives Matter sign and placed it in the front yard of her white majority neighborhood. Her intention was to start the conversation, or “even make people uncomfortable.” Whether someone is walking or driving by, perhaps they’ll think about its meaning. Her actions encouraged four other families to do the same and put up signs in support of the BLM movement.
Whatever challenges the Caudle family faces, they band together to tackle adversity in stride.
The heart of a champion
Back in Bruno’s office, the coach moseyed over to his wall and stopped in front of a picture of a horse. “Do you know anything about Zenyatta?” Bruno asked.
“Zenyatta was a female horse,” Bruno said, “and she ran against the guys. She’s the best female horse athlete ever, and the only race she ever lost was a Breeder’s Cup Classic in 2010, an equivalent to the Kentucky Derby.”
The TV mounted in Bruno’s office wall played the video clip of Zenyatta’s last race, for what must have been Bruno’s hundredth time. She was twenty paces behind all the other stallions and ended up losing by barely a snout.
Bruno can’t decide which of his former players to mount on his wall, so he puts the top male and female athletes from the equestrian realm, both with the hearts of champions, as a daily reminder of the heart he expects his players to compete with.
The same type of heart Ruth’s legacy impacted in the past and the same type of heart that Kayla embodies to empower infinite more lives in the future.
Photo at the top: Ruth Caudle embraces her daughter Kayla Caudle on the beach. (Sonya Martin/Sonya Martin Photography)