Meet the Humans of the Keys

Meet the Humans of the Keys

Monday, March 14, 2016

Carmen Kelley, Key Largo -- part 2


Welcome to Miami, Bienvenidos a Miami. (1962) Through immigration to a relative’s home on Biscayne My parents were both Doctors. My father an MD and my mother a PhD. Both graduated from the University of Havana, the same University and years where Fidel had attended law school. Here they were now in Caracas, in exile with two degrees that were not accepted. You do whatever it takes to survive in a new land, My father sold fruit on the street, my mom washed hair and the hairdressers downstairs, my grandfather, a top executive and head of sales on the island for a Cheese company Guarana Y Nela in Havana, sold ice cream in the park. My grandmother took comfort in caring for us during the day.
It took 4 months until my uncle and aunt, my cousin Ani’s parents and her little brother Gerry were able to leave Cuba and join us. Now we had another member of our family who could work. My godfather, my uncle Tico was a CPA. His skill would allow us to move to a larger apartment.
A Good education in Venezuela is limited to those who can pay. Every day my aunt, mom and grand mom would take us for walks to visit the Catholic schools nearby hoping one of them would allow us to attend. Every day we would be refused to go to school because we could not pay. Every day we headed out to a new school. This day was different. The Immaculate Conception, one of the kindest group of nuns I will be ever grateful to for the rest of my life took us in and we started school. We would be picked up by the bus in front of the apartment building and dropped off in the afternoon. A very kind and very rich and influential family had sponsored us to continue our education in a strange country. I had my first Communion at their home, they bought me the dress, long and beautiful like their daughters, the party was amazing and the gift changed our lives forever. I was given a pair of earrings that I was not allowed to refuse. Two aquamarines that many years later I was told paid for the visa and tickets to Miami where we started the next chapter in our journey, except here we were called refugees. My parents would never have accepted a hand out.
I saw President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy in his convertible! Just before we left, we had stayed home sick and saw a commotion on the main Highway to the American Embassy. We had no radios, no TV so news was just word of Mouth. Today was a special day, the American President was visiting the American Embassy. The streets were blocked and The President of the United States and the first lady drove past our building in a convertible, I know they waved up at us on our balcony. My dad hung the Cuban and American flags in their honor.
for a few weeks, to the projects. The only help we received was from a church who provided, Velveeta cheese, powdered milk and bread. My father worked for several months and was able to purchase an old car that could take us through the Everglades to a town called Tampa. There my dad had a Doctor friend who had gotten him a job as an orderly in the Hospital. So our lives would continue to change and our family would continue to grow. My youngest brother was born. And that’s the year I entered an American school. My brother and I were the only Cubans who had ever attended that school. I loved to learn and I wanted to communicate so I drew pictures, lots of pictures, and gave them away made lots of friends.
Spot, Dick and Jane! My first book in third grade introduced me to different sounds. By the end of the year I was reading Charlotte’s Web and Winnie the Pooh. I could take the books home and they were free!
Education: never stop learning. Knowledge is powerful
My father read too, he worked nights in the Hospital and studied during the day. He was preparing to take the foreign board exam. For the next seven years, An English dictionary next to a stack of medical books on our dining room table. My mom’s PhD served as an equivalence of a high school education and she too would study. My father became the oldest resident at the hospital, took his state board and hung his Medical and opened his practice when I entered high school. My mom earned a Masters and taught in public schools for 25 years. Ten years after arriving in this country I became an American citizen, graduated from high school and started college I graduated from High school in 1972. If you work hard you can achieve just about anything. We did not have government help back then, we had family. My parents and grandparents were my heroes. I learned that I was the only person who had control of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But I wanted to be all kinds of things so college I took art classes Sociology classes, history classes and graduated with a Social Science degree, added Art and Teaching.
My life changed my last year of college. I met the love of my life. Pennsylvania transplant to Florida, my husband Jack has been my soul mate for 40 years. Jack, An incredible gentle, intelligent, hardworking man who has stood by me throughout all of my crazy life. We have three amazing children.
My life as a teacher and a lifelong learner:
I needed to go to work after my third child. My first job was in a Catholic school. I accepted the challenge of teaching out of field, how hard could it be so I taught Science and Math to third and fourth grade. Four years later we moved to Ft Myers and there again, I taught Math and Science. I went from a private school to a Public school where I became the Dropout prevention teacher at Lee Middle School. I had found my calling! I believe life experiences can lead you through many different paths in life. My neighbor and friend in St Pete who was the Director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography introduced me to the principal in Ft Myers. This job in 1989, would someday bring me to where I live today. I had inner city school kids and with the help of an incredible assistant principal, we rounded up enough money to bring my class, 28 students to the Florida Keys. We stayed at Keys Marine lab, where for the first time in their lives, my students had an opportunity to snorkel, collect specimens, use seine nets and walk work side by side with scientists to learn hands on what they had been ignoring in school books. This became real and they were the scientists for the day. In Long Key what they experienced, went beyond data collection. With a purposeful focus on saving the environment the students studied the marine plants and animals with a heartfelt approach that made this style of teaching meaningful. These students were the first young group ever invited to the State owned facility. These same students along with the rest of the school wrote over 500 letters to state legislators urging them to buy the facility when a developer had threaten to convert it into a time sharing condominium. Here all levels of students were equal, working side by side and the learning was fun. My life as a teacher was just beginning. That year I was nominated teacher of the year and was selected as one of 33 teachers in the state of Florida to become a Lead teacher at sea through a grant written by The Florida Institute of Oceanography and a consortium of 5 different counties. Unfortunately my husband was transferred back to St Pete and I was on the hunt for a new job in a new school. I was hired at Dixie Hollins High school on my first and only interview. I had told them I wanted to work in the dropout prevention Program and I was bringing a Grant Program into the school through the Florida Institute of Oceanography- USF campus based right there in of Pinellas County.

I was chosen to be a Lead teacher for Project Seas, (an Education Grant through the Marine Science Dept. USF and Fla Institute of Oceanography) and taught on board a research vessel from 1989- 1997.Along with 33 other teachers I learned from the best research scientists, through a 2 year grant that allowed me to work on my science degree. I taught hundreds of teachers at Sea and on land from Layton to Marathon to the Dry Tortugas and back. My final project was to create a program that would encompass hands on learning and bring meaning to science and research into the classroom.
The beginning of The Oceanography Camp for Girls 1991- at the University of South Florida Marine Science Bayboro campus.
I proposed a grant possibility to the Science Director for Pinellas County that would encourage girls entering 9th grade to select courses in science that would not be limited to just biology or environmental science. I wanted to include Chemistry, Geology and Physics as part of a summer camp that would incorporate all the of the components of Oceanography. With the help and support of the Florida Institute of Oceanography and all of the professors and grad students at Bayboro USF Campus the Oceanography camp for Girls received a grant from the State for 25,000 dollars for a two week camp. For the next three years that I spent running the camp the grant jumped to 250,000 dollars, doubled the time and resources and organizations as well as the research vessels that made it possible for students to learn at Sea. The camp is still going strong after 25 years.
While teaching at the high school, running a camp and raising a family, I would also spend time teaching teachers. In 1996 my husband was once again transferred, this time to Dade County. I had to leave the school, the camp and explain to my 3 high school and now middle school that we were going to live in the Keys.


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