When Irish American Tom Kelly told his co-workers he was quitting his job as a healthcare executive to help children in poverty, they were dismayed.
“I told our chairman I was taking early retirement to work with kids alongside my wife,” Tom told the Irish Voice. “A lot of my co-workers’s first response was, ‘You’re kidding right?’”
Tom and Kathy Kelly raised their three children, Kathleen, Brendan and Drew, in Florida, where Kathy served as the first female mayor of Clearwater during the 1980s and Tom worked at the healthcare company Baxter International.
In their retirement they established the first rural offshoot of the “I Have a Dream Program” in 2000, offering 54 lucky students the financial support needed to progress onto third level education.
“We decided education was what we were going to focus on,” Tom explained, with Kathy adding,
“Education is the thing that can change your life.”
Chatting to the Irish Voice from their home in Georgia, the Kellys attribute much of their charitable nature to their Irish heritage.
Tom’s grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from Co. Mayo in the early 1900s.
“My grandma had a challenging time in Ireland,” he reflected. “She was the youngest of 12 and was put on a ship to the U.S.”
Both his grandmother and mother instilled strong values in him. Among the most significant, he says, was the importance of giving back to those who need it most.
“Kathy and I are proud we have passed this tradition on,” he said.
Kathy, who traces her ancestry to Galway, Waterford and Cavan, says that despite her parents never getting the chance to finish high school, they made sure she and her siblings did.
“They were determined that all of us were going to be educated,” Kathy told the Irish Voice.
Aged 56, Tom retired from his role as a healthcare executive and the couple focused all of their energy on the development of the first rural division of the I Have a Dream Foundation which was founded by wealthy New York businessman Eugene Lang in Harlem in 1986.
The first program began after Lang promised a group of sixth graders in P.S. 121 in East Harlem, New York that he would fund their college tuition if they graduated from high school. Lang, who had attended the same school 50 years earlier, urged the students to dream their own dreams, and promised to do all that he could to help them achieve their goals.
Since the program began over 30 years ago, more than 15,000 dreamers have embarked on the pathway to college in 27 states across America.
Inspired by the success of Lang’s program, the Kellys chose Greensboro Elementary School in Georgia for the first rural chapter of the foundation
In August 2000 the Kellys made a promise to half of the 120 students in the first grade class to give them the support needed to finish high school and progress onto third level education.
The Greensboro Dreamers program has followed the students since August 2000, and the success of the program has been profiled on 60 Minutes and featured in Time and People magazines.
"Eighty-five percent of the kids were at or below poverty level and a lot came from single parent families," Tom said.
“There are many kids in rural areas of America living in poverty that are all too forgotten.”
A former teacher at Greensboro Elementary School, the program appointed Beth Thomas as the full-time director of the Greensboro Dreamers. Working full time, Tom raised an additional $2 million to fund student expenses which were not covered by scholarships.
It was “tough love” right from the beginning, says Tom, who explained that the students involved in the program were enlisted to after school programs including reading, math, technology, science, character development, recreation, individual tutoring, community service, writing and team building.
As well as after school, weekend and summer commitments, the program took the Dreamers on more than 80 field trips to museums, a space camp and several colleges campuses.
Now over a decade after the program began, 85% of the students are heading to college or trade school this fall.
As well as their official graduation this past May, the Dreamers also enjoyed a separate celebration hosted by the program, where they were honored for their achievements.
“We had a graduation celebration with 400 people,” Tom said.
Those in attendance flew in from California, Pennsylvania and Florida for the special occasion.
“We had each of the Dreamers come up and talk about their experience. It was a very proud moment,” Kathy reflected.
“It was very satisfying, we always knew there was nothing wrong with the kids. We knew they could do it.”
While this Dreamers program will continue for four more years as they students progress onto third level college, Tom and Kathy hope their success with the program will inspire others to do the same.
“We would love for somebody else to do it,” Tom said.
“You get amazing results and the work is very rewarding.”