There's a simple philosophy that has driven Sylvia Kelly to serve the Newton/North Newton community in various ways over the years.
"I'm a believer that if you want to change things you have to be part of the change," Kelly said.
After graduating from Newton High School and moving away for a decade, Kelly eventually made her way back to Newton — living in North Newton for a time as well — where she raised her family. Upon moving back, Kelly became fully invested in the community and spent numerous hours volunteering her time at local organizations, serving on the original board for Head Start and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children), Habitat for Humanity and the Housing Authority Boards, the Newton Community of Racial Justice board and on several boards connected with Bethel College in North Newton.
"When people were trying to do something, they said 'will you?' and I always said yes," Kelly said.
Now, at 84, Kelly said she is slowing down and handing over the reins to the next generation — though she still serves as president of the Harvey County Federation of Democratic Women and as trustee with her church, Hall's Chapel A.M.E. She also serves as a precinct committeewoman and has helped the cause of the party for more than 40 years.
For her overall body of work and commitment to service, Kelly was recently honored as the 2019 National Federation of Democratic Women Humanitarian Award recipient — something Kelly admitted she never expected.
"I didn't do big things. I didn't have money. I worked with people where they were, and I never thought I'd be recognized for that," Kelly said.
“Our (Kansas) clubs and its members have known Sylvia as a very strong advocate of the principles of our Federation of Democratic Women. Sylvia will carry the banner of our organization in an amazing and powerful way,” said Kansas Federation of Democratic Women president Frances Jackson.
“We are so grateful that Sylvia serves with us," said Barbara Lee, director of the Harvey County Salvation Army. "In addition to loading shelves and boxes at our facility, she shares her knowledge, experiences and resources with others. Whether helping a homeless person on the street or speaking before an audience, she is like the Energizer bunny that never stops running. Mrs. Kelly is always cheerful and is definitely a pillar of our community.”
Recognized with the award at the NFDW's annual national convention in Albany, N.Y., Kelly reached out to her daughter to write about her community involvement, saying it was too much like writing an obituary for herself. During that process, she said it dawned on her daughter just how involved her mother truly was — remarking that she was often gone at least one day a week to help serve in the Newton community.
Kelly still dedicated time to raising her own children and making sure they had an inclusive upbringing, but she said the entirety of youths in the community were near and dear to her heart — whether helping them through Head Start, CASA, her work at the welfare office or helping look after children (sometimes infants) temporarily while both parents were being held in jail.
"That's where I really got my passion, if you want to call it that, is with the children," Kelly said.
Despite all she has done, Kelly admitted what brings her the most joy is the success of her children and others and seeing that be recognized. While many around the community know her through her own volunteer efforts, Kelly pointed out there is still plenty of work that remains and she encourages others to think about getting involved.
"If you're bored, if you feel bad about life, do something for someone else," Kelly said. "There's always something to be done."