In an attempt to escape their current situation in Detroit, Michigan, Kelly and her birth mother moved to Aynor, South Carolina, when Kelly was twelve. As soon as they arrived, Kelly got involved in sports (basketball, softball, and volleyball) to escape her reality of a poor home life. Kelly’s upbringing was certainly unstable, but unfortunately, not a rare situation. She never met her birth father, and her birth mother was a substance abuser. Kelly clarified, “When you see that lifestyle as a young girl, you go one of two ways. I made the decision that I did not want to go down that path!”
Moving to Aynor was Kelly’s saving grace. She had the best experiences with her teachers and coaches: “They saw what was going on, that I was the kid without lunch or was waiting to be picked up. And of course, when you are that age, your whole identity is to fit in, so I didn’t want my friends to know. My coaches would discretely bring an extra sandwich or ask me to get them something from the vending machine and tell me to get one too. I didn’t understand until later on, that was their way of providing for me. That’s just one example, I also had coaches hire me to babysit so that I could have money for food and things that were not always a given for me.”
Kelly’s volleyball teammate, Linsey, lived near Kelly and would pick her up for school and events. Lindsay’s parents, Glen and Deborah Hughes became very aware of Kelly’s home situation and made the ultimate decision of adopting Kelly. “I know it’s not an easy decision to share your family with someone else.” Kelly continued, “I truly believe that you learn what a sense of family and community is through others. They collectively made a difference with how I heard the world and how I wanted to live in it.”
When it was time for Kelly to go to college, she craved that sense of belonging again. She majored in recreation and sports management at Coastal Carolina University. Because athletics was where she found a home, she felt like it was her calling to be an example for another child to find their way. She did not play any sports her freshman year, but she got involved around campus through clubs, student government, and as a tour guide. Through student government, she met a male cheerleader, who happened to date a high school friend of Kelly’s. Knowing of her athletic background, he encouraged her to join the squad. Her first thought was, “Me, in a skirt, jumping up and down? You can’t be serious?” He invited her to a practice where he showed off his skills and when he looked at Kelly and said, “bet you can’t do this,” that was exactly the ammo Kelly needed to fire her up. They showed her a side of cheer that was athletic, competitive, and extremely team-oriented. The adrenaline kicked in. She worked all summer with them and made the team the next year.
During her first couple of basketball games, when she was supposed to be yelling cheers, she found herself so into the game, that she was actually yelling at the refs about bad plays and calls. Although the coach had to settle her down, she also realized that cheer was another outlet for her to still be a part of other sports she loved. Due to her unwavering motivation, she still wanted to be a better cheerleader. She worked out a deal where she would go to the gym early to clean it in trade for tumbling lessons. It was a whole new sense of challenge and it became another passion of hers. “Becoming a cheerleader at CCU was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Kelly explained, “It led me to my first job, doing marketing and promotions on the mic at games and it helped me become very confident with speaking in front of others.” Cheer also led her to her first position as a coach at the end of her senior year. “The current coach left, and I happily stepped in. Being a coach brought all of the things I love and stand for together. Coaches have this unique ability to see what is going on in an athlete’s life. I loved being able to be that person for others – to be able to teach and give the same grace I was given.”
After four years of coaching at CCU, Kelly decided that she wanted to lead a team to win a National Championship. She went to the mecca of cheer, Texas, for the opportunity to learn further about her craft and make great connections to the cheer athletic world. James Madison University was shifting its focus and wanted a top-level spirit program. She was recommended, got the position, and found another great home there. She was able to achieve her master’s degree in sport and recreation leadership and after her first year of coaching, her cheer team placed eleventh. During her second season, their captain passed away suddenly. They decided to dedicate the season to him and his memory. Kelly illustrated, “Winning wasn’t even the goal anymore, it was just to be a beacon for a human and to work hard together as a team to be the best for each other. We trained hard and ended up winning the National Championship title. I know he would have been so proud!”
In 2016, The Chanticleer Athletic Foundation (CAF) came calling and Kelly could not resist returning to her first home. She explained, “Coastal is my heart! It’s where I developed as a human and where I started my career. I was excited to start a new chapter and take on the challenge of growing the CAF. The idea of working for the foundation was a perfect next step because it gave me a place where I could use my passion of being a voice for someone who doesn’t have one.” While the CAF provides the ability to financially help the athletics program by raising money, Kelly viewed it as a way to raise awareness of how important a donor’s impact is on a student’s overall life. Because Kelly lived a childhood in and out of homes and wondered where her next meal would come from, she can explain first-hand how donating money is more than a scholarship, it’s about supporting someone’s chance to make themselves better.
At first, Kelly’s responsibilities were to grow the foundation and run the gala, but she also created a new program for student ambassadors. This initiative led her to the role of Director of Development where she oversaw the implementation process of the new suites and premium seating areas. The student ambassador program allows the students to work the games as they meet and interact with donors as well as take a class that teaches them the art of personal communication and life management skills. Kelly’s entire philosophy in life is to be able to help others the way she was helped so that they can make the right connections and be successful with their passions as well.
It’s no surprise that when the CAF Executive Director position became available in 2021, Kelly embraced the new opportunity to continue her philanthropic work. When I asked Kelly if there was any advice from a specific coach or teacher that stood out to her, she replied, “There was never only one, it truly took a village. If I were to take sections of my life, there are so many who invested interest in me as a human that have made me who I am today. I am incredibly thankful for everyone who showed me compassion through little acts of kindness because they all added up and got me here.” Kelly’s early childhood showed her a life she knew she didn’t want to duplicate and her adoptive family guided her to understand her passion and life mission. For Kelly and so many others, a home is not bricks-and-mortar, it’s a feeling of safety and belonging. Athletics and teamwork are what brought her a family. Kelly stated, “Some people say I had a difficult upbringing, but I like to think of it as a perspective and an opportunity to help others grow!”