Carolyn Ellis: Lighting a Fire to Transform Young Lives

By Connie Barnard

Southern Snaps: Carolyn Ellis

Carolyn Ellis is a tiny, blond ball of fire. When she decides to do something, get out of her way – or better yet, join her in her efforts. Last February, the wife of Coastal Carolina University’s basketball coach moved to the Grand Strand from Auburn, Ala., and, in six short months, has overseen construction of a wonderful beach home on the creek in Garden City. And, with her husband, she co-partnered the establishment of the Cliff and Carolyn Ellis Foundation to provide quality early childhood education for under-served children in our area.

Such energy and dedication have origins deep in the DNA of her Mennonite German father who settled in Marianna, Fla., after World War II and hard-working mother, the town’s manager for over 30 years, who was still being consulted when she passed away last January 22 at the age of 86. Carolyn’s father, a wheat farmer, believed that what you are in your spirit must be lived out. Following their example, Carolyn has made an indelible mark and a positive difference every place she has lived during the last 39 years of her gypsy life as a coach’s wife.

Carolyn Ratzlaff was a junior in high school when she was asked to hostess a reception for incoming freshmen at Chipola Junior College in her hometown. It was there that she met Cliff Ellis, a star basketball player from nearby Chipley, and their 44-year love story began. They finished college and graduate school together, and then began their educational careers – she as an English teacher, he as a basketball coach. Their first positions at Niceville High School in Florida were followed by moves to Lebanon, Tenn., Mobile, Ala., Clemson, and Auburn, Ala., prior to their most recent one to Coastal Carolina University. Along the way, the couple was blessed with three children: Chryssa, Clay and Anna Catherine, who today are successful adults living in various sections of South Carolina.

Thirty years ago, when pregnant with their first child, Carolyn was profoundly affected by Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. The famous neurologist and psychiatrist had survived years in a Nazi concentration camp during which he developed a theory that the core of the human spirit can survive and thrive under any circumstance if it can find meaning for which to live. Frankl’s views reiterated those of Carolyn’s parents and the example of compassion and service which Carolyn has tried to emulate throughout her adult life, particularly regarding education. A high school and junior college educator for 22 years, Carolyn saw first-hand the effects of early learning and its importance in the lives of young people. She resolved to be a conduit for change, working with Boys and Girls Clubs and various other community partnerships helping to improve learning opportunities. In 2006, she ran for the Alabama House of Representatives on a platform of educational reform. Even though she was a Democrat running in a heavily Republican district, Carolyn almost won the election, and she has never regretted the attempt, viewing it as an opportunity to share her message regarding the need for a strong educational reform.

With her background and passion for education, particularly as it relates to those often overlooked by society, it is not surprising that soon after moving here, Carolyn Ellis brought these concerns to the forefront. “Most of us are concerned when we are informed of situations in our communities,” she said. “We are troubled by cycles of poverty and abuse in areas of our state which have been referred to as the ‘corridor of shame’ because of the great numbers of at-risk families and individuals. There are things we can do to address these concerns.”

It is so important not to let ourselves off the hook or become apathetic or cynical by telling ourselves that nothing works or makes a difference… The inaction and actions of many human beings over a long time contributed to the crises our children face, and it is the action and struggle of many human beings over time that will solve them… So every day, light your small candle.

Working under guidelines established by the Coaching Charities organization, Carolyn and Cliff Ellis formed a foundation to help raise awareness of the issues facing South Carolina and find resources to remedy them. Her dream is to establish a model childcare center in conjunction with Coastal Carolina University and Horry Georgetown Technical College, which will provide an affordable, quality pre-school program for young children in our area. At the same time, it would also provide their parents with the life-changing opportunity to go to college.

“Neurologists agree that 90 percent of a child’s mental and social development is determined before he or she is four years old. The synapses in their little brains make connections dependent on the stimuli in their lives before they enter public school,” Ellis said. One in seven children in South Carolina will miss a chance to succeed in school, perhaps ending up in special education classes, simply because he or she missed that early opportunity and cannot compete with children who are better prepared. She quoted a report issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, stating that for every dollar invested in quality childcare, we get a sixteen dollar return in terms of reduced social dependency and incarcerations.

Carolyn would also like to include after-school programs for older children, recognizing that most risky behavior occurs between the hours of three and six in the afternoon. “Quality youth development programs can cut crime immediately and transform this prime time for juvenile crime into hours of academic enrichment, wholesome fun and community service,” she said. “They protect both kids and adults from becoming victims of crime and cut teen pregnancy, smoking and drug use while helping youngsters develop the values and skills they need to become contributing citizens.”

She notes that existing programs in Horry and Georgetown Counties such as First Steps and Teach My People are making strides in these directions, and the Ellis Foundation wants to determine the best way to work with these organizations rather than duplicate services they provide. “All of these agencies are doing valuable work, but there is never enough money and never enough awareness of their importance. Cliff and I would like to do whatever we can to increase awareness and resources for quality childcare and after-school programs. Every coach, every educator and, indeed, every person, chooses whether to serve themselves or some greater eternal value.”

Though both Carolyn and Cliff Ellis are working hard at their new jobs and community opportunities, the new life they are building for themselves is clearly balanced with its share of fun as well. In addition to their brand new home on the water, the move to the South Carolina coast has provided them the opportunity to enjoy another passion: beach music, particularly the Northern Florida version referred to as the P.C. (Panama City) Bop. In his youth, Cliff was lead singer for the “Villagers,” a group that toured the Southeast and opened for the likes of Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich. He also performed with the Four Tops, the Temptations, Delbert McLinton and Eddie Floyd among others. In 2007, in addition to his return to coaching, Cliff also recorded a CD with his all-time favorite musician, Oscar Toney, Jr., titled “Meet Me at Mary’s.” Clearly, this multi-talented, multi-faceted couple continues to enjoy making music and making a difference in this new place and time in their extraordinary, adventure-filled lives.

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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