Moral, Happy, Productive: Kyla Newkirk ’24

Story by Melody Guyton Butts // Photo by Kathy McPherson 

On Kyla Newkirk’s sixth birthday, her mother, Monica, made a request that set her on the path to empathy that has come to define her life. 

“My mom said, ‘Before you receive any gifts for your birthday, you have to serve others and help others,’” she recalled. “So that’s when I started to go to the Durham Rescue Mission to serve food and pray with the people there to give them encouragement so they can always feel like they matter, too. That’s just what I love to do.” 

Now a Durham Academy eighth-grader, Newkirk has marked her birthday each year by visiting with residents of the Rescue Mission’s homeless shelter. And she looks for opportunities to help others anywhere she can throughout the year. 

“I’ll find a person on the street who has a sign — like I’m struggling to help my family — and go to Panera Bread or someplace like that to buy them food,” she said. “And the change that I have, I would put it in the bag for them so they are able to buy some more food or whatever they need.” 

A few years ago, Newkirk spent Valentine’s Day weekend creating what she called “Kyla Care Kits” — care packages filled with hygiene and first aid items, snacks, socks and red roses — and hand-delivering them to members of Durham’s homeless population. 

“When I drive past a homeless person, or especially if I see kids with a homeless person, that doesn’t make me feel so great, knowing that I’m so fortunate and knowing that other people aren’t as fortunate as I am,” she said. 

The Kyla Care Kits and other acts of kindness earned Newkirk recognition from city elected officials; former Durham Mayor Bill Bell and former Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden proclaimed March 22, 2016, as Kyla Newkirk Day in the Bull City. In addition, she has received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, and she was the first child to be honored by the Ebonettes Service Club for her work. 

But public accolades aren’t the motivation behind Newkirk’s good deeds. Not many of her classmates or teachers knew that once a week — between volleyball and lacrosse practices and homework time — she volunteered as a tutor at the Boys & Girls Club. She spent much of her time there helping at-risk students with math skills. 

What Newkirk enjoyed most about her tutoring work was “their faces when they realize how to do certain math strategies that I teach them, things they didn’t know before,” she explained. “Sometimes they have breaks and we’ll just play a board game, and just seeing them smile is pretty great to me.” 

Newkirk said she’s continually inspired by the example that her mother and grandmother set with their own service to others. 

“My mom was a big influence because she’s always about helping other people. Sometimes she doesn’t realize that she needs to help herself as well. She loves to help other people, and so that’s what she always taught me,” Newkirk said, explaining that her mother devotes countless hours to community service — from serving food at soup kitchens to making toiletry bags for the homeless — with her sorority. 

“And my grandma is the same way,” she continued, noting that her grandmother volunteers in the community with her church. “She had my mind stuck on helping other people. I’ve just grown to love it.” 

Now, Newkirk hopes she can help inspire other young people to take action to make a difference in the lives of Durhamites who are facing hard times. At the Upper School next year, she hopes to start a student club focused on helping the homeless community. 

“I want them to know that they are people that matter in this world. I’ve talked with a couple of people that are homeless, and they hate how people just ignore them, and they feel like they don’t matter,” she said. “That’s really sad to me. And so I try my best to encourage them. That’s why I love to do it.”