'Take chances': Son of Haven farmer never expected to be chief of staff in Washington, D.C.
When Brandon Harder, of Haven, was spending half his day at Haven High School and the other half at Hutchinson High School learning to weld, he never imagined that less than two decades later he would find himself traveling the world and running a congressional office in Washington, D.C.
Harder grew up on a ranch in Haven. His chores included mending fences, feeding horses and moving cattle. His father, Randy, was a welder, so Brandon figured welding was the right path for him.
"I never wanted to go to school," said Brandon, Kansas Rep. Tracey Mann's chief of staff. "I was going to be a welder and take over my dad's welding business."
While Brandon was working on his degree in agriculture diesel mechanics at Hutchinson Community College, he joined the livestock judging team and met a whole new group of students - they came from across the U.S., and they all planned to attend a four-year college.
Brandon realized he too could go to college. So, he headed off to Kansas State University and graduated with an animal science degree.
"My dad told me to keep going to school," Brandon said. "It would give me a leg up."
At K-State, Brandon was all in. He became part of the student government and was president of the interfraternity council.
"I would just cannonball into opportunities," he said. "At school, my world opened up."
Brandon Harder's start in politics started with an internship
While at college, Brandon interned for Sen. Pat Roberts. After graduation, he became a field director for Sen. Jerry Moran and later became his agricultural advisor in Washington, D.C. After working in this position, he eventually married Moran's daughter Kelsey. They later divorced.
In 2014, Brandon became the director of governmental affairs and communications at the Farmers' Rice Cooperative, which he held for more than six years. In this position, he worked with both farmers and policymakers.
When Mann was setting up his office, he contacted Brandon, a fellow K-State graduate. Like Brandon, Mann grew up on a farm in Kansas' first congressional district. A fifth-generation rancher, Mann wanted someone who understood the plight of farmers in Kansas to work in his office.
"I am honored to be a part of the team," Brandon said. "He (Mann) cares deeply about people and their wellbeing."
Brandon said his heart is always in Kansas. He drives back to the prairie in his pickup truck whenever he can.
"That call to Kansas was always there," Brandon said. "Kansas is the pilot light for the country."
Harder family growing its roots
Three years ago, Brandon married Kristina Lyn Pelekoudas, former executive director of the President's Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. Kristina holds a bachelor's degree in public service and communication from the University of Pennsylvania as well as a master's degree in public policy from the University of Edinburgh.
Although Kristina grew up in California, her family has roots in Michigan and Illinois. She feels at home in the country, especially in nature.
During graduate school, Kristina did research in Africa. Brandon also worked in Africa before the couple met - performing both missionary and agriculture work. After they married, they visited the continent.
The two decided to form a non-profit, Victory Road Co., named after the dirt road Brandon grew up on in rural Kansas. The organization helps missionaries, as well as those in need, in Kenya and Tanzania.
"Missionary burnout rates are above 80%," Kristina said.
Victory Road Co. trains missionaries to communicate effectively, raise money and avoid burnout. By doing this work, the Harders believe missionaries can devote more time and energy to help others.
Next month, the couple will open a coffee shop in Moshi, Tanzania to help girls who were rescued from sex trafficking.
"It's an opportunity to serve," Kristina said. "We try to put ourselves where there's a need."
Last fall, the two built a small 12-by-14 chapel on Victory Road in Kansas. They are not sure what they will do with this chapel - other than continue to pray within its stone walls.
"The land we built the chapel on was historically known for hospitality," Brandon said.
Kristina and Brandon realize there is no right way to enter the workforce. Instead, they said God was always opening the right doors - and they were willing to walk through them.
"I tell students to take chances and get a good look at the world," Brandon said. "There's no wrong step. The world's big out there."
The young couple want others to follow their dreams - sometimes the path leads back home. Sometimes it wanders.
"Doors keep opening. We keep walking through them, and opportunities keep opening up," Kristina said. "We just kept walking through open doors, and God put us in the right positions. Every opportunity you have will inform the next one."