Adam and Caitlin Thielen’s lives have been shaped by the sports they played growing up.
As an all-state center midfielder for Woodbury High School, Caitlin’s quick feet (and quicker thinking) set her apart on the soccer field. She went on to share her talents with both Iowa State and the Minnesota State University-Mankato, receiving the accolade of NSIC Newcomer of the Year—the first in Mankato’s program history.
Knowing that not all youth have access to the same opportunities that they did, Adam and Caitlin have decided to use their platform to give back.
Adam, on the other hand, grew up tossing a football around his backyard in Detroit Lakes. His impressive catches for the Lakers caught the eye of MSU-Mankato’s coaching staff and…well, the rest is history.
Those experiences in youth and collegiate athletics taught Adam and Caitlin the value of hard work, discipline, and being a team player. Knowing that not all youth have access to the same opportunities that they did, Adam and Caitlin have decided to use their platform to give back to the activities and communities that have given them so much.
In September 2018, Adam and Caitlin made their biggest play to date: launching the Thielen Foundation. With a focus on youth development, the Foundation aims to create programs that serve, educate, and inspire individuals so they are equipped and empowered to reach their full potential in life.
The Thielen Foundation will celebrate its second anniversary this fall. We spoke with Executive Director Amy Sinclair about the impact the foundation has made in its first two years, and the impact they hope to make in the future.
A Champion for Youth
It all started with a visit to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
Specifically, the hospital’s Pediatric Behavioral Health Unit, which supports patients under the age of 18 struggling with depression, substance use disorder, as well as other behavioral and mental health conditions. The more interaction they had, the more they began to notice a need that had been overlooked by other philanthropists for far too long.
Those kids needed a champion.
“Adam and Caitlin chose to support that particular unit because it was not supported by any organization or individual,” Amy said. “They just felt that the need was so great for those kids to have a support system, inspiration, and tools.”
With an initial 100,000 dollar pledge to the Pediatric Behavioral Health Unit in September 2018, Adam and Caitlin officially kicked off the Thielen Foundation. The Thielens continue to make regular visits to the hospital to speak with patients, offer messages of hope, and provide tools like journals, yoga mats and instructions, and comfort items that will help them on their path to wellness.
These visits are a unique opportunity for the Thielens. Because many of the patients they meet are minors, no cameras are allowed to accompany Adam and Caitlin. Rather than preparing a statement or a speech to the kids, they sit with them in a circle and participate in an open question-and-answer forum.
“They are well aware that many of those kids don’t even know who Adam is,” Amy said. “These kids ask him all kinds of things, and sometimes it’s really goofy stuff. But Adam will answer every question they ask him, and he’ll answer honestly. Those kids will be changed by that forever, whether they know who he is or not.”
Promoting Positive Behavior Through Sports
While the Masonic Children’s Hospital was the Thielen Foundation’s first formal partner, the Foundation has expanded over the past two years to reach several organizations and hundreds of youth across Minnesota.
Another early partner of the Thielen Foundation was the Salvation Army. Every year, the two organizations partner to provide Christmas gifts to help struggling families celebrate the holiday. In 2019, the Thielen Foundation expanded their partnership with the Salvation Army to have an even greater impact.
“We expanded that program to not only provide holiday items that the families need and want, but to give them some financial support so parents can get tuition assistance for education, job training, rental assistance, and other expenses to get them on their path to independence,” Amy said.
2019 also marked the beginning of the Thielen Foundation’s relationship with Brooklyn Center High School. In September of last year, the Thielens announced a program that included renovating the school’s weight room, donating thousands of dollars’ worth of athletic equipment, and creating a scholarship fund to help students who are leaders on their respective teams further their education.
The partnership also includes regular visits to the high school, where Adam and Caitlin offer the student body inspiration and nutritional education.
“What Adam and Caitlin really wanted to do is teach kids the value of commitment, showing up, discipline, goal setting, and being a good teammate, all through the platform of sports,” Amy said. “Those kids were over the moon having Adam Thielen and Caitlin walk in their doors and offer all those resources. We received testimony after testimony from kids who said, ’We will never forget this time in our life when we were championed by someone who really cared about our future, and who we were.’”
Sports continue to be central to Adam and Caitlin’s mission. The Brooklyn Center program is a pilot that the Foundation hopes to replicate at several other schools in the coming years. In the meantime, the Thielen Foundation has partnered with several inner-city youth football teams, created to prevent kids and teens from participating in gang activity.
“These street football teams have zero resources,” Amy said. “We get them funding, so that families don’t have to pay an activity or a team fee, plus we provide jerseys, footballs, cones, flags, cleats, so that these kids can participate in something positive and healthy.”
Philanthropy Through a Pandemic
Across the country, nonprofits have been some of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic—and the Thielen Foundation is no exception.
“We had three big fundraisers which we had to cancel, we had to refund everybody’s tickets,” Amy said. “And without hesitation, both Adam and Caitlin said, ‘It’s for times like this that we created a Foundation, for when people are really hurting and need the support. And we are not going to stop donating just because we can’t do fundraisers to bring in money. We are going to keep giving.’”
“We raised more than $280,000 during that 12 hours to help people in the state of Minnesota directly because of the virus.”
As Amy and the Thielens brainstormed ways to continue serving their communities during the pandemic, Adam had an idea: what if they used their platform on local radio station KFAN—on which Adam is a frequent guest—to raise funds?
Nine days later, the Foundation hosted a 12-hour radiothon—a day full of impact stories, awareness, and raising money to assist organizations serving the community during COVID-19. Call-in guests ranged from Adam’s teammates like Kirk Cousins and CJ Ham, professional golfers and tennis players, to actor Josh Duhamel.
“We had no idea what the potential was, if it would be just a few thousand dollars or what it would look like, but we raised more than 280,000 dollars during that 12 hours. We equally divided the funds among four organizations that already had relief efforts in place to help people in the state of Minnesota directly because of the virus.”
Those four organizations—the Salvation Army, Second Harvest Heartland, M Health Fairview System, and the Minnesota Disaster Recovery Fund for Coronavirus—each received over 70,000 dollars to put toward their relief efforts.
The Right Team
With the values they’ve learned from sports and the right team by their side, Adam and Caitlin Thielen have achieved their dream of empowering and inspiring youth to reach their full potential.
One valuable member of their team is Choice Bank.
“This was a start-up foundation. We didn’t have a checking account, we had nothing, and we built it up from day one.”
“Choice Bank is a treasure for us, and not just for financial support,” Amy said. “If we have ideas we want to bounce off of somebody, it’s always, ‘Call Choice Bank first and see what they have to say.’ They are so good to us, and we are so grateful for their partnership.”
From providing youth with the tools they need to succeed to helping their community endure during a pandemic, the Thielen Foundation has a lot to be proud of in their first two years.
“This was a start-up foundation. We didn’t have a checking account, we had nothing, and we built it up from day one,” Amy said. “To come this far in a short amount of time and to formalize some really strong partnerships, to be as financially sound as we are early on, is something that makes me really happy.”
To support programs that help youth achieve their full potential in life, please visit www.thielenfoundation.org/donate/.