New scholarship honors memory of beloved school nurse
This June, a new scholarship will be given out in the memory of Mary Kelly, a local Cranston resident and Cranston Public Schools (CPS) employee who passed away unexpectedly earlier this school year after a brief illness.
The scholarship, created and funded in part by Deana Barlow and the faculty and staff at Cranston High School West (CHSW), will go to a CHSW student who will be pursuing a job in the nursing profession. A committee comprised of Kelly’s family, friends and colleagues will help to choose the recipient.
Barlow explained that when she heard of Mary Kelly’s passing, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.
“Once Mary passed, I knew I wanted to do something to honor her because she truly was an amazing woman. She was the ultimate professional and she had a special way of working with all students she encountered. She put her heart and soul into her profession and gave her time freely,” Barlow said. “I contacted Tom and asked how he and his boys would feel about starting a scholarship in Mary’s name. He was honored! I told him that I did not know if it would be possible, but I wanted his permission before contacting Central Administration with my proposal.”
The Kelly family – Mary and Tom, and their sons Thomas, Patrick and James – have a strong connection to Cranston Public Schools, specifically to Cranston West and the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center (CACTC). Both Mary and Tom were employed by Cranston Public Schools as educators and spent time teaching at CACTC, and all three sons graduated from CHSW and CACTC.
Tom Kelly was honored when Barlow approached him, asking if a scholarship could be created in his wife’s name. Mary Kelly was just 55 years old when she died, and had gone to work to begin this new school year, her sixth at Stone Hill, before she began feeling ill.
“Nursing was really her thing, and she really loved the young ones. She called them her little buttons,” Kelly said. “She worried especially about her students who were diabetics. Even when she was being hospitalized herself, she wanted to be sure that they were being taken care of.”
Barlow was pleased when her request for help establishing a scholarship was welcomed and approved at the Central Administration level.
“On Feb. 12, 2014, I sent an email to [Superintendent] Dr. [Judith] Lundsten and [Assistant Superintendent Jeannine] Nota-Masse requesting permission to establish a new scholarship in Mary’s name,” Barlow said. “Mrs. Nota-Masse responded to my email immediately. She thought it was a fantastic idea and she provided me with the name of the person who could guide me in the right direction, Mr. Lars Anderson. I contacted Tom to share the good news – the Mary Elizabeth Kelly Memorial Scholarship would be established.”
It was Tom Kelly who suggested that Barlow contact the nursing supervisor, Deborah Svitil, so she took his advice and made the phone call.
“I told her who I was and what I was doing. She was instantly on board and was moved by what I was doing to honor her friend. Deb spread the word among all of the nurses in Cranston Public Schools. Since this time, donations have been coming in from all over the district,” Barlow said. “I organized a dress down day at Cranston West on Friday, April 4, and we raised $435. With all of the donations to date, we have raised $998 in Mary’s honor.”
According to Tom, Mary Kelly graduated from Rhode Island College at 22, and began her nursing career immediately.
“She worked at Roger Williams and Women & Infants early on. She worked in the Health Occupations program [now called Medical Pathways] at CACTC, and this would have been her sixth year as a school nurse educator at Stone Hill,” he said. “She spent 33 years as a nurse altogether, but she really spent her whole life as a nurse. She was really nursing 24 hours a day.”
Kelly explained that their youngest son James was a twin to baby Robert, both boys born prematurely and weighing a total of just 4 pounds between them. Robert lived just three weeks, while James lived but was fragile even when he was sent home.
“James came home at 7.5 pounds, but he was extremely fragile. We had oxygen in the house and apnea monitors in case he stopped breathing. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and Mary had to work with him every day. She taught him to walk, she worked on his speech and his reading. Because of that, he has done phenomenally well and just graduated from RIC. He’s now a substitute teacher.”
Tom and James reminisced about the days when Mary would arrive home from work exhausted and mention how tired she was.
“We’d tell her that maybe if she didn’t do such a good job decorating her office with all the little touches the kids loved, like her Raggedy Ann dolls and lots of books, maybe the kids wouldn’t want to visit her so often. She had so many ‘frequent fliers,’” both men recall.
Stone Hill Elementary Principal Norma Cole said the void that has been left by Kelly’s passing is one that won’t easily be filled.
“The students and teachers are still very emotional about Mary. Nurse Kelly was a warm, wonderful and witty woman. She blended all those things into how she comforted students and sometimes adults at Stone Hill School. Somehow, it felt like all the students belonged to her and that was reflected in the way they spoke about her after she died,” Cole said. “Students were her ‘little buttons,’ and parents were ‘Mum and Dad.’ At Stone Hill School, students and staff remember that Nurse Kelly was there if you were sick, anxious or just plain sad. She checked out the problem and gave you what you needed – medical attention, a Band-Aid, an ice pack, some quiet space or simply a hug with the message that it will be all right. The storytelling and memories about Nurse Kelly are shared every day at Stone Hill School. Nurse Kelly will always be in our hearts.”
Cole said that the school has done several things already this year to honor Kelly’s memory. “We had a ‘Hearts for Nurse Kelly’ activity where students were given hearts and wrote something about her on them,” Cole said. “They bought the heart for a dollar and with the money, the PTG has bought an AED machine for the school which will be her honor. The sixth-graders also devoted a page in the yearbook for her.”
According to Tom Kelly, Mary also became the full-time caregiver to her own mother as time went on, nursing her at the end of her life for 19 months at home, full-time, in addition to her hours spent as the school nurse at Stone Hill.
“So really, she was always a nurse, always the caregiver,” Tom said.
It’s for that reason – Mary’s love of caregiving and nursing – that the family felt strongly that the scholarship be given specifically to a graduate pursing the same career, and a person who possessed that same caregiver passion that Mary Kelly possessed.
“One of her favorite things to do was to go into the classrooms and work with the students,” said Tom. “She enjoyed educating them about things like allergies and diabetes and tooth decay. Each year she would buy hundreds of those little tooth chests so that when her students lost teeth at school they had a special place to put their tooth until they got home.”
It was those special touches, and others like them, that both Tom and James believe set Mary Kelly apart from others in her profession.
Barlow said the first Mary Elizabeth Kelly Memorial Scholarship will be given out at the Cranston High School West Honors Night on Thursday, May 22, by Tom Kelly and his boys to a student at Cranston High School West who will be pursuing a degree in nursing.
If anyone is interested in making a donation to the Mary Elizabeth Kelly Memorial Scholarship, checks should be made payable to Cranston High School West with the memo notation “Mary Kelly Scholarship.” Checks should be sent to Deana Barlow at Cranston High School West, 80 Metropolitan Ave., Cranston, RI 02920.