Dr. Kelly's grand vision is a partnership with local schools, social services and Texas Tech to create a charter school for kids who are in non-parental care.
Out of embarrassment, Daniel Kelly for years avoided telling his story of living in foster care, group homes and shelters in New York state.
But after becoming a middle school teacher and seeing students in the foster care system struggle, Kelly, one of the newest Texas Tech University College of Education faculty members, thought he should speak up.
While a graduate student at N. C. State University, he wrote a book about his experiences, "Falling Down." He used the proceeds from it to form The PUSH Initiative, a nonprofit that helps fund organizations that support at-risk youth. Now an assistant professor at Texas Tech, he is expanding his efforts to give hope to kids in foster care.
Kelly was recently sworn in as a court appointed special advocate, or CASA volunteer, for the Lubbock area. CASA of the South Plains recruits, trains and supports volunteers who advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the foster care system.
"That's me giving back to all the people that gave to me," Kelly said. "It's a cause I deeply believe in."
It takes 30 hours of training to become a CASA volunteer. Once sworn in, volunteers are assigned to a case and meet with the biological parents, foster parents, teachers, counselors, caseworkers and then prepare reports and recommendations for the judge. Volunteers spend an average of 10 to 15 hours per month serving as an advocate.
In his support of CASA, Kelly joins Texas Tech Football Coach Kliff Kingsbury, who has been a vocal champion of the organization's mission.
"We are very thankful to have Dan join us as a CASA volunteer," said Gabe Ballesteros, director of communications and marketing for CASA of the South Plains.
"His personal journey gives him a unique insight into the various struggles children in foster care face every day. Unfortunately, the Lubbock region currently ranks fifth in the state of confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect per capita, ahead of larger metropolitan areas such as Austin, Houston and El Paso. More CASA volunteers, especially men, are urgently needed to stand up and be a voice for these most vulnerable children."
There are nearly 400 kids from Lubbock County in foster care, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Kelly said he hopes he's making a step towards an even closer partnership between Texas Tech and community organizations like CASA to help improve outcomes for those children.
Kelly's grand vision is a partnership with local schools, social services and Texas Tech to create a charter school for kids who are in non-parental care.
Children in foster care can bounce from home to home, switching schools and even school districts. A centralized school would provide those youngsters a stable education and access to services like counseling, nutritional assistance and job placement help. Such a school would also allow university researchers to study different ways of teaching and working with at-risk youth.
"What I really want is Lubbock to be a model for foster care," Kelly said. "Geographically, we're very, very isolated. Because of that isolation, and the city's population density, these kids are within our reach."
He has just been here a couple of months, but Kelly has already put a dizzying number of smaller, related projects into motion. He is bringing to Lubbock a summer camp he created at N. C. State that introduces children in the foster care system to STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. The camp fits squarely within his teaching and research interests. As an assistant professor of instructional technology, he focuses on using technology to increase high school graduation rates and boost STEM employment participation for at-risk and underrepresented student populations.
Planned for the summer of 2019, the camp will offer hands-on STEM educational activities to inspire at-risk youth to pursue STEM-related careers.
Kelly is working with the Texas Tech University Library to start a research journal for foster care. There is not currently one in the U.S., he said. Kelly is also bringing The PUSH Initiative – which stands for Propelling Underserved Students Higher – to Lubbock to support local service providers.
Citing graduation statistics, Kelly said he wants to see more children in foster care complete their education. Only 50 percent of children in foster care graduate from high school, according to the National Foster Youth Institute.
Just three percent of kids in foster care go on to graduate from college by age 26.
"It's kind of been my mission over the last few years to give back and be able to find ways to change those numbers," he said.
Kelly said his efforts are about showing children following the same path he once went down that there is a way forward.
"I sat for years angry about my past, and there was no good that came from that," Kelly said. "So I kind of turned that energy into thinking about how we can change the system to help these kids who, at a young age, think they've been abandoned."
For more information, contact Daniel Kelly at 806-834-5391 or firstname.lastname@example.org.