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For Kelly Smith, growing up in foster care was hard.

“There was no stability. I was shifted around in my formative years. I felt afraid a lot of the time. And, when I would settle in and make friends with my foster siblings, I’d be torn apart from them and placed in another home.”

When Kelly was six years old, she landed with a family that would raise her for her remaining years. While this family provided stability, happiness was just out of reach. Her foster dad was an alcoholic, so the family lived in dire poverty. For this reason, they were never able to formally adopt Kelly.

“I consider them my parents and my foster mom’s mom my grandma. I know they loved me even though it was stormy at times, and we’d lack running water and a clean environment.”

A Naturally Curious and Gifted Mind

Despite Kelly’s tumultuous upbringing, she consistently performed well academically throughout elementary, middle and high school.

“I was always a straight A student. I remember I wrote about sharks when I was in first grade. My paper was four to five pages front and back, sectioned into various stories about sharks. My teacher was in awe and told my foster mom that first graders didn’t write like that. She urged her to consider moving me to third grade. She declined, and that was a great decision because I needed my friends. They were my whole world. So, I was placed in various gifted programs and took advanced placement classes in high school. I also participated in a French immersion program and became fluent in French in my formative years.”

College Gateway Opening the Door to Much More

Once Kelly finished high school, she saw college as her ticket out of poverty. It was a gateway to a life where she could be whomever she wanted, free from her past trauma. Yet, at Meredith College, she found the academics much more challenging. She found the worldviews much more liberal. She began to question her intelligence, her life, her beliefs and suffered a suicide attempt. Kelly was immediately transported to Holly Hill mental hospital for monitoring and evaluation.

“I’m grateful for Meredith and for my mental health breakdown. These experiences led me to a place where I received care from the kindest nurses. It was where I needed to be to address my past. I left college for a year, moved to London with the financial backing of my grandma and set out to find myself free from the familiarity of my surroundings. It was the best decision I could have made. Once I returned to the United States, my life was forever changed.

“If I had not had that mental health crisis, I never would have cared the way I do about mental health. I never would have become a nurse.”

Kelly changed her major from environmental sustainability to chemical physics and microbiology. Upon graduation from Meredith College, she landed a job in her field, but she found the work unfulfilling. So, she returned to school and completed a certified nursing assistant program before matriculating through nursing school and spending some time as a nursing student back at Holly Hill. There, she helped and supported patients in the way she was cared for, finding her calling. Not long thereafter, Kelly began working at WakeMed.

A Nursing Career at WakeMed

Today, Kelly works at WakeMed Cary Hospital and encounters patients experiencing mental health challenges.

“I’m a behavioral health champion and explore how best to support and build relationships with patients. And, because of my own trauma, I can quickly establish trust as I understand a patient’s behavior in a way that others cannot. Every bad thing that’s ever happened to me has always led to something good — whether it’s fate, circumstances, a higher power, just me or my circumstances — I’m very thankful for it all.”

In realizing she had landed in the career of her dreams, Kelly decided she wanted to return to school to earn a bachelors of science in nursing in order to become a registered hospice nurse and preceptor. However, finances proved an obstacle. There were no funds from which to draw. Her only remaining, living parent — her foster mom — is partially paralyzed and living with dementia. Kelly has guardianship.

Brainstorming for ideas, she decided to share her dilemma with her WakeMed supervisor.

“I was talking with my supervisor, Meghan Cripps, about different options, and she said, ‘Why don’t you apply for Helton Scholar funding?’

“The idea got me excited that I could realize my dreams. I love helping new nurses, so that’s the reason I want to be a preceptor. I long to be a hospice nurse because I experienced my first death while a nursing student. It was beautiful and peaceful. I felt lucky to be with the patient in her last moments. I want to make sure that end-of-life patients are each clean and turned appropriately. I want them to be as comfy as the day they were brought into this world. Life is full circle. There is beauty even in the darkest moments.”

Kelly applied for Helton Scholar offered through the WakeMed Foundation. The intent of Helton Scholar is to provide funding for individuals seeking to complete a higher education degree. Preference is given to candidates who demonstrate impact to patient care and financial need.

Finally Carefree — Thanks to WakeMed Foundation and Helton Scholar

In her Helton Scholar essay, Kelly chronicled her turbulent life and how it led her on a path to becoming a nurse — which gave her purpose and joy. To her amazement, she became a final nominee and was scheduled for a meeting with the Helton Scholar committee as part of the application process.

Kelly delivered her story with passion and raw vulnerability. The committee was in tears and voted unanimously for her to receive the funding. On October 6, 2023, Kelly was officially awarded the scholarship of $5,000 per semester. She began her first class on October 23, 2023.

Words of Encouragement for Foster Children

In considering her life, Kelly offers encouragement to foster children faced with similar obstacles.

“Set your own timeline and make choices that lead you on that path. If there’s family, friends, a job or anything else prohibiting you from moving forward, follow your heart. Don’t hang on to someone or something unhealthy. Forgive your past. No matter how horrible, you always learn something. Grow from it. Rise above it. Don’t wallow in anger, hate or sadness, letting these emotions consume you — because if you do, you’re just going to stay stuck, and there is such a big world out there waiting for you.”

Gratitude for a Dream Realized

To the Helton Scholar committee, Kelly gushes with gratitude.

“This opportunity means so much to me. I’m going to finish my degree, and I don’t have to worry. All my life, that’s what I’ve done. Where’s my next meal coming from? Where’s my next home coming from? Where’s my next trauma coming from? What’s going to happen to me? For the first time in a long time, I don’t have to worry; it’s just done.”

Kelly has no doubt that she’ll continue as a straight A student and fulfill her goal to become a nurse. She is grateful that the Helton Scholar award gave her the opportunity to reflect on her life and believe anything is possible. Inspired to skateboard fearlessly into a bright future — Kelly launches forward with her skateboard, scrubs, helmet, kneepads and books.

About the WakeMed Foundation

For over 60 years, the extraordinary care that WakeMed provides has inspired countless donors to invest in our vision to serve all those that need us.

From new facilities, innovative health programs, and meeting the needs of our patients and staff, philanthropy plays an important role in supporting WakeMed’s mission.

You can make a tremendous difference with your support!

About Foundation Scholarships

The WakeMed Foundation awards and administers scholarships and grants to fund continuing education opportunities and programs that will further WakeMed’s mission.

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