I Spy Someone making a difference.
A passion for beading turns philanthropicby Mona Prufer
Sitting on her office floor in a nicely matted frame is a brightly colored children's drawing of two hands holding a beaded heart. The words in the center of the picture say it all:
Mrs. Kelli Barker
Beautiful braclets (sic)
Coastal Carolina Employee
Volunteers her time
Giving to others
It's from the children at Forestbrook Elementary School where Barker and her mother, Madeline Cornett, held beading workshops for children in the Heart Stories program created by CCU alumnus Jenny Abbott Edwards.
"The only catch was, they had to make a bracelet for someone else," says Barker.
That, actually, is at the heart of Barker's beading philosophy: She makes beautiful beaded bracelets as self therapy, and then she gives them away – to charitable organizations for fundraisers, to friends, to people she'll never meet. Admire a bracelet she is wearing, and she is likely to take it off her arm and give it to you. Give her some beads, and, in the predawn hours of morning, she'll create a bracelet, a necklace and matching earrings.
It's what she does when she isn't working at Coastal Carolina University, where she's been employed in various capacities since January 2001. Barker, a self-described "military brat," first drove a van full of kids during a CCU summer camp, then later was hired as program assistant for academic outreach. She's worked for the Center for Education and Community, and she's now center manager for the Division of Academic Outreach and runs the noncredit courses at the Myrtle Beach and Conway centers.
"My love has always been for lifelong learning," says Barker. "It's a program I've always loved and respected."
But this summer, she'll take on the University's kids' summer camp program, as well as the Summer Arts Academy for music, performing arts and visual arts. Coming from eight years at Pee Dee Elementary school as a family school coordinator, working with children is something she's familiar with – and loves.
"I'm really excited we're holding summer camps at the Myrtle Beach and Waccamaw centers because we've never done that before," says Barker.
Barker got into beading about three years ago when she and her mom went to a craft fair and noticed lots of overpriced jewelry made from colorful beads. "I thought I could do that, went home and tried, and I could!" says Kelli. "Since then, it's become my therapy, my time to be quiet, to think about others."
Therapy in any form is essential these days since Kelli and husband Dennis lost their only son, Jordan, who died Nov. 18, 2007. "It's something you never get over, but you have to keep going," says Barker, whose desk is surrounded by photos of her late son and a glass scorpion, a reminder of the two pet scorpions he left behind for her to care for. (There are also photos of daughters Desma, who is camp director/field trip coordinator for the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry in Charleston, and Cassie, who's a pet nutritionist at a pet store in Columbus, Ohio.)
When Kelli can't sleep at night, which isn't unusual since Jordan's death, she gets up and makes special bracelets for people who have faced similar losses.
"When I found out she was making these very special bracelets with such love, I asked for some of them," says retired CCU education professor Sally Hare. She calls them "kellibracelets."
"I take them to retreats and, when appropriate, I will share them with someone and tell them about the great loss Kelli has suffered and the love she puts into making these bracelets," says Hare, who travels extensively with her husband Jim Rogers for their business, Still Learning Inc. "I have given them to people in Korea, Guatemala, South Africa, as well as across the U.S. When I took a writing workshop with the new North Carolina state poet laureate the other day – Cathy Smith Bowers – and found out it was her birthday, I gave her a kellibracelet."
Hare, who worked with Barker before retiring from CCU in 2005 after more than 30 years, describes Kelli as "an extraordinary human being with great intelligence, a natural gift of working well with people and an incredible advocate for Coastal."
Dave Evans, associate provost in charge of the Myrtle Beach Education Center, when asked to describe Kelli Barker, was succinct: "She's ridiculously awesome!"
And then there's Linda Ketron, director of the University's Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning (OLLI) program, who has worked with Barker through Academic Outreach.
Ketron calls her the 'go-to girl,' the person who gets the job done, smooths ruffled feathers and delivers "because she truly cares about each person's role and responsibilities, what pleases them and why they are deserving of respect."
"There are no words to describe her dedication to her work and the people she is serving," says Ketron. "Beyond all that she does for her community, she lends her quiet personal support to parents and young people who have suffered the hardest losses. I'm not alone in thinking she's an angel among us."
Barker's community service is noteworthy. She serves on the board of the Horry County Disabilities and Special Needs because "they need a voice," she's a co-chair of the Logistics Committee for the Celebration of Inquiry, member of the advisory board for Project Lighthouse and a Heart Walk team leader. She makes bracelets for ArtWorks to sell – the proceeds going to Project Lighthouse, a safe haven for teens that is "near and dear to my heart," Barker says.
She also has made bracelets for First Book of Horry County fundraisers, for the American Heart Association silent auctions, for Citizens Against Spouse Abuse (CASA), for the Long Bay Symphony Youth Orchestra, for the Georgetown County Library and now, for Katie's Project, a store where young girls can obtain prom dresses and accessories.
But just remember: if you get a bracelet from Kelli, the catch is, you have to pass it forward. And that could be your therapy.
To nominate someone for I Spy, go to the Web site of the Department of Human Resources at https://www.coastal.edu/hreo/workplace/ispy.html.