Blog post

Advocacy road trip: How a minivan has become 'the VANbassador'

Join Ben Shlesinger this summer as he embarks on a journey across several states to engage, educate and energize the American Kidney Fund (AKF) Ambassador community in… the VANbassador!
Ben Shlesinger posing through the sunroof of his gray van in his driveway

One man. One van. One mission.

Join me this summer as I embark on a journey across several states to engage, educate and energize the American Kidney Fund (AKF) Ambassador community in… the VANbassador!

In case you had not heard yet, "the VANbassador" is the name I have christened my minivan as I drive to states near Washington, D.C. to meet with AKF Ambassadors face-to-face.

The idea for this came after I drove to Brooklyn to meet with three of our stellar, longtime Ambassadors: Stephanie Dixon, Dawn Edwards and Lisa Baxter. I had been saying for years I was going to make a visit, and after avoiding travel since March 2020, I decided to finally do it. We had a fun lunch catching up and discussing advocacy on behalf of all those affected by kidney disease. Dawn mentioned that it had been two years since the three of them had all seen each other and it was great to finally begin getting back out into the world. That's when the proverbial lightbulb went off and it dawned on me that other Ambassadors might also like to meet face-to-face and get a momentary reprieve from Zoom.

I love working with Ambassadors and missed connecting with folks in-person, especially since our past three Kidney Action Summits have been virtual due to COVID-19 concerns. I decided I would make more of these in-person trips to provide more Ambassadors the opportunity to interact with each other (and me) without a screen. Thus, after a few not-so-great names, the VANbassador was born!

Aside, from the maiden voyage to Brooklyn, I have already made two trips to Delaware. My upcoming itinerary currently includes several stops in Maryland and Northern Virginia and tentatively Pittsburgh as well. There have also been requests for the VANbassador to stop in New Jersey, Virginia Beach and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I would love to make all these happen.

Map of the East Coast with a red pin for AKF's location and a radius circle around it

Unfortunately, the VANbassador's travels will be limited to day trips. The hope is the VANbassador's range will allow me to visit a good number of Ambassadors without requiring that I go inside an airport, which would increase my risk of COVID-19 exposure. Check out the handy dandy graphic to the left to see if you fall in the VANbassador's travel radius. However, I am willing to make exceptions, like in the case of Elizabeth Oldham, who I will visit in Cleveland after I stop in Pittsburgh.

Ambassadors are the lifeblood of AKF's advocacy efforts and we want to see everyone again. I will be updating you on my travels throughout the summer on our Kidney Today blog – so you can keep track of where the VANbassador has been and where it is going next!

Are you part of any regional or local support groups? Let me know and maybe I can attend an event or a meeting.

If you want the VANbassador to visit your town, please email me at and I will certainly try to make it happen.

Here's to a healthy rest of 2022 and hitting the road to see many of you!


Ben Shlesinger

Ben Shlesinger is the associate director of government relations at the American Kidney Fund.