Mike McDonnell: Big Kid, Big Heart

Founder of Houston’s popular Kidventure camps, Mike McDonnell never puts on the brakes when it comes to exploring life, owning empathy, and living in gratitude.


HFM: You live in Austin. How do you connect to Houston?

MM: I was born in Houston and spent most of my life here. It is in Houston where I founded Kidventure back in 1994. Currently, Houston is our base camp of operations for Kidventure. We run 20 Kidventure camps in the greater Houston area, as well as several after school programs.

HFM: Tell us a little about your family.

MM: My greatest adventure in life is the one I share with my family. My wife is Peggy McDonnell, who was born and raised in Houston. I have four children: MacKenna (18); Peyton (15); Hadley (10); and our newest addition, Michael Bennett (2), whom we adopted from China last February.

HFM: What inspired Peggy and you to adopt?

MM: Peggy and I had talked about the idea of adopting for many years and had explored options in Houston. Then about 4 years ago, I was invited to travel to China to meet with school officials there about bringing our Kidventure Camp program to mainland China. I ended up traveling there on three separate occasions.

On our second trip there, my wife and I took a couple of days out of the schedule to volunteer at an orphanage in Xiamen. Unfortunately, there are many orphanages, with far too many children (particularly girls and kids with special needs). On the second day of playing and helping out with the kids, a little boy arrived in the room where we were working. He was about 6 months old and weighed no more than ten pounds. I remember him crying so much. We were drawn to him and held him. We fed him a bottle.

I think I must have walked around and just held him for hours. We did not travel to China because we wanted to adopt, but when we left the orphanage that day, we vowed to do all we could to try to bring that boy home. We called him “Peanut” because he was so small. So we spent the next year and half working to adopt “Peanut.” Finally, in February of 2015, we traveled with the whole family back to China to officially make him part of our family.

HFM: You’ve said that you believe that “more than ever, family should be defined in a much broader sense than the traditional.” What do mean by that?

MM: The very soul of any society is family. Family has the power to shape the world, to define the paths of its young and create a kinder and more peaceful world. It all begins here.

Too often I think we’re looking for our politicians and military to find solutions for a better world. I believe that ultimately, what will define the world for the better is a greater emphasis on family, doing a better job as a parent, being intentional about the examples we set, and treating family as the most important catalyst for change.

Strong families make strong communities and so on…

Families come in all different shapes, sizes and combinations. What defines a family isn’t what comprises it, but rather its potential for love and good. That should be the determinant.

I am also pretty biased when it comes to adoption, whether that adoption process takes place near home or halfway across the world. Adopting brings the world closer and provides yet another reason that family has limitless boundaries.

HFM: Michael Bennett (MB) arrived in your family from China with a number of medical challenges. How have these challenges influenced MB’s process of bonding with his new family and a new world, for better or for worse?

MM: At 45 years old, I thought the last thing I ever wanted to do was change another diaper. Then we adopted a 2 year old with complex medical issues. To say that that has not been a challenge would be a lie, but that challenge and the courage and love Michael Bennett has given my family and all those around him is immeasurable.

My son has a life. That life, no matter how tenuous at times, is a gift. We, my family, are blessed. We are fortunate to live in a world where we don’t worry about our next meal, the shelter over our heads, the mortal safety of our lives, or even being abandoned. If we can’t take care of just one person in greater need, than who will?

Michael Bennet provides me with perspective. He makes me more humble and provides me with the opportunity to love someone who requires a lot of energy and effort. I remind myself that the greatest things in life often come with the greatest effort. My entire family plays a part in helping their little brother. Simply for that, they will be stronger and more caring.

HFM:. How is MB doing today?

MM: He has more life and spirit and love and stubbornness than a 2 year old should have. We have a couple upcoming planned surgeries soon. He will do well, and we’re so thankful for great doctors and surgeons. Other than that, it’s the normal stuff. He wears me out.

HFM: I took some time to read your blog, GoParentUp. Gratitude appears as a recurring theme in your posts. When do you think this perspective of gratitude first rooted itself in your life, and how does it play out as a source of enrichment?

MM: I don’t know. I think it stemmed from my father. He was always the the guy rooting for the underdog. He would always pull for the team that wasn’t suppose to win or the neighbor down on his luck. Eventually he left corporate America and became an ordained minister who served here in Houston for over 20 years.

I’m a sucker for movies like “Rudy.” I just think that no matter how bad you’ve got it, someone else is suffering worse. It’s important that we take stock of our blessings and that we use our energy and time to help raise up others. It doesn’t take much.

I am a huge proponent of volunteerism. It’s something we try to teach our campers at Kidventure: to be empathetic, to help others, and to make a difference. One of the most important things we can instill in our kids is the knowledge that they have the ‘power’ to make a difference.

HFM: Your posts also tell us you are a man of faith. Can you briefly explain your definition of faith and why you feel it is so important?

MM: Visit an orphanage and look into the eyes of kids that have been abandoned. Left alone. If we can’t provide faith for them or others like them, then who can? Faith gives us hope. It provides us with brevity in times of trouble. But faith alone isn’t enough. We have to act intentionally on that faith. I try to teach that to my kids.

HFM: You are a person who seems to remain strongly connected to his childhood—the simple, everyday aspects of childhood in the 70s. Do you think kids today are enjoying the same type of childhood?

MM: Big topic. I could go on for days. Here’s the short version. I think that while technology and our fast food/fast paced lifestyle has made our lives more convenient, it’s also negatively interrupted the natural progression of childhood in many ways. I believe that kids need to be outside more, to play, discover their world.

Sure, I watched my fair share of “The Brady Bunch,” but we also rode our Big Wheels up and down the street, skinned our knees in the open lot, and created lasting relationships without a hint of technology. Kids are still the same. They all want to play, have fun. They all want to be loved, accepted and contribute to something bigger than themselves. As parents we have to allow them the opportunity to do so.

We have to ‘let go’ more and give them the chance to take some risks, make mistakes and learn from all that. Keeping them locked up behind the iPad at home and at dinner won’t allow for this kind of experience.

HFM: I can’t help but derive from what I do know about you that your childhood experiences played a driving and inspirational role in your creation of Kidventure back in 1994. Am I right?

MM: No doubt. I guess in some ways I’m locked in those days, exploring the nearby creek, or high up in the trees. There is something inherent in a child’s need for adventure. I think too many kids don’t get it or try to live it out through a video game. Adventure teaches us so much. It teaches us courage, independence, and trial and error.

When we created Kidventure 22 years ago, we wanted to bring that opportunity for adventure back to kids. We wanted to keep kids active and try new things and do so in an environment that was positive and professional. At the end of the day, I’m just a big kid. I don’t ever want to lose that feeling.

HFM: Your Kidventure Facebook page quotes you as saying, “In a world that needs a lot more kindness, courage, leadership and laughter, it’s a good thing someone is providing a program to develop all these important traits.” How does Kidventure foster these qualities?

MM: At the end of the day, you can have the best camp facilities and the coolest games and events, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters most for fostering great leaders, teaching character and instilling confidence is the quality and caliber of the camp counselor and staff. That relationship and the effectiveness of it is the single most important factor in the success of any camp program, teacher, parent, etc. Surround our kids with brave, energetic, compassionate, and caring leaders and you’ll get the same in kids. It’s been Kidventure’s most important endeavor since our inception.

HFM: By all accounts, you are a very goal-driven individual. What lies ahead for you?

MM: Goal driven, restless, or easily bored….I love what I get to do and feel fortunate for the opportunity to be a part of the lives of so many kids and team members. My (our) goal is to first continue to improve on the service we provide our kids and families. I would like to bring our “way” of working and playing with kids to other organizations and help others provide a better opportunity to grow great kids. I want to be a TED speaker, I want to perfect my banana pancakes, I don’t want to lose a foot race against my 15 year old, and I want to help inspire other parents to adopt.