Kathryn Kelly grew up one mile from Harlem Heights, driving past the neighborhood routinely, never giving extra thought to the families who lived there.

But that changed in 1999, when she and members of her church delivered food baskets to households in the neighborhood, where the poverty rate for children is more than twice Lee County’s average.

She met one family in particular living in squalor. Rats infested their home and six children slept on mats spread out on the damp, concrete floor. Kelly suddenly felt embarrassed that she had spent so many years naïve to the condition of households in her own backyard.

It was a day—and family—she never forgot, and it’s what led her and a team of dedicated individuals to create The Heights Foundation.

The nonprofit organization’s 14,000-square-foot community center is like a beacon of hope set in an otherwise grim neighborhood, with a population that is 70 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American and 8 percent Caucasian. It offers opportunities for children, like an after-school program, which serves more than 110 adolescents; and assistance for adults, like English language-learning classes and career-skills support.

“Our mission is to build self-sufficient families in the Harlem Heights neighborhood,” Kelly says.

In 2016, The Heights Foundation even opened a charter school, which now serves 50 kindergarten-to-second-grade students, of which 73 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are African American, and 13 percent are Caucasian. Currently, classes take place in the back of the center, but Kelly plans to have a separate building for the school—which will eventually teach up to fifth grade—within the next five years.

The school has made a “surprising amount of impact” in the community, Kelly says. “These are kids that people before would have said can’t learn, and the kids themselves would not have considered themselves to be successful at school.”

But, with the love, support and expectations the foundation offers, the children are learning to thrive.

“I get choked up thinking about it, because there’s this whole generation of kids now that are going to go through our school, that are going to be successful because they are going to be reading on grade level … and they’re going to be ready for whatever,” Kelly says. “It’s amazing to be able to do that.”

Next year, a very special kindergartener will be entering that school. It’s the son of one of the six children—now young adults—who changed the course of her life on that fateful day in 1999.

“I’m very excited about that, because I used to tutor his dad and now we get to have his son here,” Kelly says. The relationship shows Kelly and her team have done more than affect change in the neighborhood—they’ve earned the trust of families and become a very part of the community’s fiber.

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