Kelly Thomas’ story reads like a movie script.
A promising young woman enters college with high hopes but runs off with her boyfriend instead. Then comes marriage. Next a baby. Soon a divorce. Where will she go from here?
Some people crumble after a misstep, while others shake it off and move on. Thomas’ journey to a fulfilling role as “life coach” at Oyler Community School
in Lower Price Hill is proof that, with the help of a stable foundation and support system, it’s possible to pick up the pieces and walk away profoundly changed for the better.
When Thomas was a child, the family shared a comfortable life in Miami Heights. Her parents taught her and her brother two big lessons: First, that it’s possible to overcome poverty through education and hard word; second, how to build (and how to be) a strong family support system.
Her parents came from very little, economically speaking, but were savvy enough to start and grow family businesses to build wealth. Thomas was a serious teenager — self-critical, a perfectionist and an over-achiever. Her parents were her greatest cheerleaders and supported her without fail.
About them, she says, “I have so much admiration for the way they love and parent all of us. So many people don’t have that source of love and strength in their own parents, and it is a huge deal.”
In her hometown, Thomas had been a “big fish in a little pond.” Once she entered college at Northern Kentucky University in 1987, she was more like a fish out of water — the proverbial small town girl lost in a big, unfamiliar world.
During that first year, she and a girlfriend reminisced about life before college. In a moment of memories and weakness, she rekindled an old relationship that would derail her plans for the future.
Plans changed quickly. Her boyfriend wanted to seal the deal and get married as soon as possible. It was only a matter of months before they were husband and wife and college was no longer a priority.
Her son was born less than a year later. The divorce was final soon after. Thomas, just 20 years old, was now a newly divorced mother without a college diploma.
“So much damage was done because I simply felt lost,” she says. “It's a cautionary tale that shaped many years of my life, and its effect is still evident at times. I have felt everything from anger to guilt to grief. I completely own my own mistakes in terms of it all. I can never regret having my precious son, but I now take marriage extremely seriously after having failed at it so completely.”
After her divorce, Thomas took time off from school to keep a steady job and take care of her son. Four years later, she enrolled at the College of Mount St. Joseph to complete her Bachelor’s degree in Socio-Psychology and Women’s Studies.
Thomas wasn’t quite clear where the degree would take her, but she was following one of her greatest interests: people. Her career path since then has taken her through a few social service agencies and then, almost a decade ago, to her current job in Lower Price Hill.
Finding music again
Nearly 10 years after her son was born, Thomas knew it was time to start taking better care of herself. She turned to music, something that had been a large part of her childhood and adolescence but that she never had the chance to develop once hitting adulthood.
“When I was 28 or so and Ryan (her son) would go for visits every other weekend, I was really experiencing depression and a nudge that I wasn't doing all that I should be,” she says. “Music was a big part of that. I started carrying around tapes of songs I wanted to sing and passed them out to every guitar player I saw, just going out to hear live music.”
Her candid self-promotion landed her in her first band alongside another female singer and a guitar player. The experience of collaborating with other musicians was exciting and a welcome change of speed.
“I never had considered writing songs, but the magic of the three of us together quickly yielded a catalog of songs,” Thomas says. “After that band, Second Sister, performing and writing became a full-on need and it’s something I will always find a way to do.”
Thomas’ experience with Second Sister led her on a path through various successful artistic projects
, including Kelly Thomas & The Fabulous Pickups, The Tammy WhyNots, The Hayseed Tabernacle Choir and current project Wilder
. In 2003, she started the Rivertown Music Club, a nonprofit that paired local music with philanthropy and pushed Thomas into a position of significant influence in the Cincinnati music scene.
During its seven-year stint, the RTMC organized shared gigs and large-scale fundraising events, promoted local rising-star musicians, mentored local artists in business skills and gave dozens of small recording grants to new talent. The organization gave Thomas the opportunity to play the music she loved and a platform for doing what she does best: helping people pursue their dreams and be their best selves.
A change agent
One of Thomas’ greatest gifts is the way she so naturally cultivates positivity and productivity in the people around her. She sees herself as a “change agent” and finds a way to embody that spirit in every area of her life.
“I say I’m a ‘change agent,’ not social worker or teacher,” she says. “I’m not just a mother, grandmother or musician. I think that’s the theme of my life. And I think the way that change typically happens … is that I really see people for who they are when they can’t see in themselves and I reflect it back to them. I want them to see that.”
Unlike many artists and musicians, Thomas is a balance of creative and practical. She admits that she has a bohemian “gypsy” spirit but has always been smart and pragmatic about her life and work.
She is also honest about her own failures and hopeful about the future and has become the kind of mentor who understands enough to skip judgment and provide practical help for moving forward.
Thomas can’t imagine a life without her music, but the practical side of her has never shirked from building her career as well. After she graduated from Mount St. Joseph in 1998, she spent a few years working as a Children’s Services Worker for Hamilton County Job and Family Services. The job was rewarding but emotionally and mentally taxing.
After five years, she was ready for something new. Her unique pairing of skills is what brought her to her current position at Oyler School.
Nine years ago, at about the same time Thomas was ready to move on from Job and Family Services, Cincinnati Youth Collaborative was establishing its Jobs for Cincinnati Graduates
(JCG) program at the new Oyler High School in Lower Price Hill.
The purpose of the JCG program is to “empower at-risk youth to reach their full potential” through an elective college and career readiness class for 10th through 12th grade students. The mission was something that Thomas could get behind. And the Oyler Community Learning Center, which has since become a model
for community-based education to at-risk youth, was a place she could really make a difference.
Teaching "Life 101"
As a public neighborhood school anchored in one of Cincinnati’s urban Appalachian neighborhoods, the story of Oyler School
is one of adaptability. Until a few years ago, students there aged out after middle school and most of them never reached their high school graduation.
In a neighborhood plagued with poverty and drug and alcohol abuse, dropouts don’t fare well. The high school program was started in the hope that the transition to the upper grades would be more fluid and yield higher graduation rates.
Jobs for Cincinnati Graduates is an even deeper investment in preparing these struggling youth for life after high school. Thomas is teacher, mentor and coach to the students enrolled in her class.
“I really wish instead of my class being called JCG it would be labeled Life 101,” she says, “because that's what is it really about.”
Judith Moore is the CYC Program Manager for Jobs for Cincinnati Graduates. She supervises Thomas and has worked with her on several projects including developing curriculum for the JCG program. She considers her a consistent, loving, creative mentor for at-risk youth at Oyler.
“Kelly is extremely innovative, extremely quick, involved on many levels for several initiatives in the Greater Cincinnati area,” Moore says. “She possesses an enormous amount of resources and is always willing to engage those resources for her students, mentees, etc. Kelly is community-conscious 24/7 and truly wants to make this world a better place.”
Thomas provides so much more than practical life skills for her students, though those are a part of the coursework. She's teaching them social skills, building their self-esteem. She helps them plan for their futures and coaches them through the transition from child to adult.
The odds of future success are stacked against many of the kids at Oyler, and Thomas knows they feel the weight. But she sees people in terms of their potential, not their past, and she pushes her students through the tough spots to bigger and better things.
She has been there. She knows how it feels.
Pursuing profound change
In the same way she's mentored many local musicians through the music business, Thomas is mentoring her students. And it harkens back to her own childhood, when her parents provided the support system and stability that helped her move on past the hiccups of her early college years.
For many of the kids at Oyler, there is no safety net like the one Thomas had as a child. For them, their school, their community and mentors like Thomas fill in the void.
“It is literally the most exciting thing I’ve ever been a part of,” she says, “to be a part of profound change that is lasting.”
Oyler School isn’t the end of the road for Thomas. She will be completing a Masters degree in Special Education this spring, which could steer her in a different direction occupationally. But there’s not a chance in the world that her vision will change. She is working toward achieving her own potential for the sake of pushing others toward theirs.
Where Thomas is headed is more important than where she’s been. And she’s passing that vision on to others as well.