HER: Kiwana Denson - The Bend Magazine

HER: Kiwana Denson


By: Kirby Conda  Photography by: Duex Bohéme

Production Team: Hair by: Evana Reyna & Amber GarciaRiptide Salon  •  Makeup by: Ashle Riff AlignoTease Salon  •  Wardrobe Styled by: Alexa GignacJulian Gold  •  Location: Elizabeth’s at the Art Museum


Kiwana Denson is a conversationalist. In the most endearing way, she explains right off the bat that she is not shy about talking to anyone and everyone—and in fact, she begins telling her own personal story with “long story short.” Denson is instantly a woman after our own literary hearts. She probably wouldn’t describe herself this way, but every time she enters a room, uplifting energy follows her in. Her smile is infectious and, even with the unimaginable hand life has dealt her and her family, she wears it effortlessly. 

Denson is the mother of Je’Sani Smith, the 18-year-old who was tragically swept away by a rip current at Whitecap Beach in April 2019. She and Je’Sani’s father, Terry Denson, have since created The Je’Sani Smith Foundation to honor their son’s legacy and help spread the message about the dangers of coastal hazards in hopes of saving lives. 

The foundation is designed to provide education, awareness, and water skills training on beach safety, seaward-flowing water currents, and other coastal hazards. On top of that, Denson successfully led efforts to implement legislative action in regard to beach safety in honor of Je’Sani. After several emotional trips to the state’s capital, HB 3807 was one of the two bills passed this year thanks to Denson’s hard work, enforcing mandates on the use of lifeguards and informational signs to improve safety on public beaches. 

Denson said, “I know all too much about a topic I never thought I’d ever need to learn about.” As the rest of our party sits around the table, eager to know more about beach safety and Je’Sani’s story, she prefaces her response with a version of, “This can get really scientific.” And each time I’ve witnessed her begin to speak about the importance of rip current education and how to spot one, or the dangers around jetties, as if on cue, the eyes of her listeners widen as Denson explains safety scenarios in detail. Many in her audience are shocked by having resided in the Coastal Bend nearly all their lives and never having the knowledge to save their life or someone else’s. 

From loss, pain, and grief, Denson built a foundation and helped craft legislation centered around preventing what tragically happened to her own son. Her efforts, both locally and statewide, have undeniably saved lives. Even with her life experiences, Denson carries a lightness about her. She is a woman who harbors deep wounds and pushes past them all for the sake of others, and that is something worth celebrating.

In Her Own Words

What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

Before our son Je’Sani’s tragedy, I could answer this question without hesitation or any thought at all, but now, it is not an easy question to answer. Every morning when I wake up, I think of my late son Je’Sani. I’m reminded that he is no longer here in the present, and the need to go in his room and check on him or wake him up from bed are past memories. It instantly saddens me and the need to get out of bed, well, what for? A part of me is gone and never to return. But then, my conscious mind begins to ask God for strength to get out of this bed and through the day. And that’s the catalyst for which I get out of bed each morning. My loss, pain, and grief have driven, inspired, and called me to the greater good, in a way that I never imagined. I founded an organization after my late son in an effort to prevent open water drownings, and my family and I lobbied for beach safety legislation—which, two of three bills successfully passed—and continue to find ways to broaden the beach safety mission and spare others from having to deal with the loss of a child or loved one. So many lives would be at risk if I didn’t make the conscious choice to get up every morning and function like I’m supposed to, including my own. 

Why do you feel it’s important for women, especially mothers, to be involved in community advocacy? 

We are typically overconfident in terms of our ability to know about the future, and in this life, we should and can expect to experience pain, sickness, loss, and/or suffering. And because of that, we should be empathetic and support causes that make a difference in our livelihoods. 

Which woman in your life has influenced you the most and why?

My mother. If I didn’t choose her, I would be in trouble! My mom is imperfect and she is a fighter. Over the years, I watched her navigate through stress, discrimination, relationships, illness, and a lot of loss, in many different ways. She’s gotten right back up and kept it moving, maintaining a sense of humor, hope, and faith. I see myself in that imperfect fighter. She taught me well. I’m sure this is debatable, but in my opinion, imperfection is the most honest aspect of humankind.  It allows you the opportunity to grow and influence others.