Sunday, May 26, 2024

Face Time: Carolyn Kelly

For someone whose expertise in coastal issues and environmental regulations in South Carolina had led her into battle against oil companies, politicians and major developers—and once even drew the ire of an outraged priest—Carolyn Kelly also understood how and when to keep to herself.

Especially when it came to something as personal as her late mother.

Prior to taking the stage this spring to deliver the keynote at a one-day conference that explored the challenges facing youth caregivers, the wife of Florida Atlantic University president John Kelly never had opened up publicly about her own experiences in that role.

As a teen, she felt “different” tending for a mother who in her early 40s was diagnosed with Wegener’s granulomatosis, an inflammation of the blood vessels so rare that, at the time, only 20-plus cases had been identified—and so deadly that she was given two months to live. As an adult, she remained private about that part of her life. Why go into details about the experimental procedures and steady flow of chemo and radiation that would prolong her mom’s life for 17 years? Why explain that her father, so unraveled by his wife’s disorder, would “check out emotionally and, later, physically?”

But when Kelly met Connie Siskowski at an FAU football game last year, something about her mission as president of the American Association of Caregiving Youth struck a chord. Maybe she sensed a kindred spirit. Maybe it was just time. Kelly accepted Siskowski’s invitation to speak at the April conference, held at the Safe Schools Institute—and has since been overwhelmed by the e-mails and outreach from fellow caregivers inspired by her story.

“My world exploded when I heard the initial diagnosis,” Kelly says. “I was in high school, and I’m the one talking to doctors about her ongoing care. … But my mother handled it all with such grace; she never complained. I think her strength shaped me. When I’d face a challenge—moving to a new city, starting a different career path—I did it without fear. Like my mom.”

Before becoming FAU’s first lady, that fearlessness would carry Kelly into uncharted waters as a marine science major who, instead of gravitating toward the worlds of research or environmental advocacy, chose to go where the rubber met the dirt road. She followed the money, or at least the distribution of money, earning her master’s degree from Clemson University in natural resource economics, a route that led to a civilian job with the U.S. Coast Guard. There, she helped to launch a national program involving natural resource damages.

To read the full story, pick up the September/October issue of Boca Raton magazine.

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