By KATIE EUBANKS
How life prepared her to serve at Prep
“I would not be sitting in this chair, had I not been born into the family I was born into,” says Kelly Headley, seated in her office as community service director at Jackson Preparatory School.
Her parents, Robert and Sandra Peters, tried for six years to get pregnant. Doctors told the couple they wouldn’t be able to conceive, and that they should adopt. Sandra was ready to, but Robert wasn’t. So Sandra prayed the Old Testament prayer of Hannah, who told God that if He gave her a child, she’d give that child right back to Him.
Finally, Sandra was going into a surgical procedure as “a last-ditch effort” to get pregnant, Kelly says. Before the procedure, the doctor walked in and said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t do surgery today.”
Sandra started to get upset — but then the doctor said, “You’re pregnant.”
Due to delivery complications, Justin was born with cerebral palsy. Twenty-one months later, Kelly came into the world as a healthy baby girl.
“We looked just alike, so many people thought we were twins,” Kelly says. “When someone close to you goes through difficulties, you automatically take those on.”
From ages 3 to 5, Justin lived at the former Crippled Children’s Center, which sat next to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Parents were allowed to visit for seven hours on Sundays, and for Justin, two of those hours were spent riding to Vicksburg and back so he could spend time with Kelly at home. (Sandra came up with excuses to visit the center at other times as well.)
Despite doctors saying Justin would have minimal brain function at best, never walk, and never hold a pencil, Justin learned to walk and write (his first word was “mother”) at the Crippled Children’s Center. He also made lifelong friends there. Today Justin is married, walks on crutches, and preaches all over the world. Without his crutches, you’d never know he had cerebral palsy.
But growing up, as he underwent surgery after surgery, he and Kelly had a different upbringing than most kids. “It was certainly different than my circle of friends,” Kelly says.
“Having someone with a disability changes everything. There are changes in perspective, in lifestyle, in the way you do vacations. We took a lot of vacations, but not to the beach. Crutches and sand don’t mix.”
However, “God was always faithful. That doesn’t mean life was always easy, but God was always there in the good and the hard. My mom once told me she stayed in constant communication with God, all day every day.
“There were so many blessings we experienced as a family that we never would have experienced otherwise. My family was the beneficiary of a lot of love and kindness,” Kelly says. “You almost feel bad that other people aren’t getting to experience that. But then the reality is, it’s hard (taking care of a disabled person).”
While Kelly’s parents received lots of help, they were also “extremely selfless and sacrificial,” she says. “They raised us to put God first, and to put others before ourselves.”
And, after praying Hannah’s prayer and getting God’s answer, “my parents did give my brother back over to the Lord in how they reared him spiritually, and his life became a ministry to the Lord.”
That spiritual training happened at home first, but also at First Baptist Vicksburg, which became Kelly’s second home.
“My two pastors, Dr. John McCall and Dr. Gordon Sansing, were extremely influential in my life and my family’s life.”
Kelly started following Christ at 9 years old, “not fully comprehending what Christ did for us, but feeling Him draw me to Him … and feeling Him growing me through a life full of ups and downs, and knowing He keeps His promises and never leaves us or forsakes us, in spite of ourselves,” she says.
Thanks to all the people who reached out and helped her family through trials, “I knew I always wanted to give back in some way — because that’s all I knew.”
A winding trail
As a young person, “I took a winding trail in college,” Kelly says. She attended Mississippi State University and later transferred to Mississippi College for her senior year after meeting Blake Headley, who was from Brandon and already in the workforce. Kelly and Blake got married after she graduated with a business administration degree.
Kelly soon got a job as an account executive selling airtime at Clear Channel Communications.
“My favorite part was just the relationships that you make and build through sales. I loved getting to know the business owners in the Jackson area, and I still have long-lasting friendships (that I made there),” she says.
As she and Blake started their family, she naturally had fears about her children being born with disabilities.
“Absolutely, with every pregnancy, that was always in the back of my mind, even though I knew that my brother’s disability was not genetic. I had a lot of anxiety about how the delivery would go, but I still knew if something were to go wrong, that God was still God,” she says. “God was still in control.”
Jordan, Walker and Sarah were all born healthy and without disabilities. Kelly stayed home while the kids were young.
Then a friend, who was a founding board member of the LeFleur East Foundation, told Kelly they were hiring an executive director. The LeFleur East Foundation is a “super neighborhood” and business organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in the LeFleur East area of northeast Jackson.
That job built upon and expanded Kelly’s existing connections in metro Jackson, and used those connections to improve the community.
“One of the things I loved (about that job) is realizing it doesn’t matter if you live in Jackson, or Madison, or Rankin County — we’re all in this together, and we need to work together to improve the quality of life in the metro area as best we can.
“That job broadened my vision for doing your part in improving where you live and how we live with each other.”
Developing hearts in high-school hallways
Seven years ago, when Kelly’s daughter Jordan was a student at Jackson Prep, Kelly was asked to help out part time at the school’s Patriot Shop, which sells Prep merchandise. After a couple years of doing that, she heard about an opening for community service director at Prep.
Working with people? Check. Helping people? Check.
“It immediately felt like a natural fit, not something I had to think long and hard (about),” she says.
“I inherited a well-developed program,” she says. “Ann Duncan (wife of Ligon Duncan, former pastor at First Presbyterian Jackson) preceded me and did a lot of the legwork developing this program to first benefit others, and secondly to grow the hearts and minds of our students to serve.”
Students can’t count just anything as a “service hour” at Prep. They can only count a certain number of hours serving as a House or Senate page at the state Capitol. They can’t count hours spent serving at their church, “because church is where you’re already comfortable,” Kelly says — unless they’re serving with the church somewhere out in the community. And, students can only count four “bought” hours, with twenty dollars of donated items equaling one hour.
However, no Jackson Prep student is required to serve. At all. “So the students who serve do so willingly,” Kelly says.
“We do recognize students with service hours at the end of the year — but the greater goal is certainly for it to be a heart change for them, and for them to take it with them long years after their time at Jackson Prep.”
One goal is for students to find a service area they love and stick with it. So Prep chooses a different nonprofit to partner with each year, in order to give students plenty of opportunities with that particular organization.
In Kelly’s five years as community service director, the school has partnered with The Salvation Army, Canopy Children’s Solutions, Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital, the Lefleur Museum District and, this past year, the Mississippi chapter of Joni and Friends, which ministers to families impacted by disabilities.
The latter organization, of course, has been especially meaningful for Kelly. In fact, she and her parents served at the Joni and Friends Family Camp last summer, where her mom led a small group for mothers and Kelly led one for siblings. “You think, ‘I’m going to go serve these people’ … but you’re the ones who walk away blessed,” Kelly says.
In Prep’s partnership with Joni and Friends, “(we also) included all organizations that serve people with disabilities. I loved so much watching our students serve in those areas so well and so naturally,” she says. “We hosted a special needs pageant at Prep in February. We served at the Joni and Friends Barnyard Dance (in Lena, Mississippi) in the fall.
“It was just wonderful to see our students jump in and love on those who can often be forgotten. My brother never wanted others to treat him like he had a disability. He just wanted to be like everyone else. And that is true for everyone with a disability. Joni and Friends provides so many opportunities for them.”
COVID-19 put a premature stop to Prep’s service plans for spring and summer, such as helping out at this year’s Joni and Friends Family Retreat.
Instead, “a lot of my students made phone calls to those who were homebound, the elderly, those who had COVID,” Kelly says. “They bought groceries for them, baked for them, made cards. Donations to Salvation Army were made.”
At press time, Prep was planning to return to school physically — and the partnership with Joni and Friends was set to continue for a second year, as many other organizations are unable to take volunteers due to the virus.
“(Joni and Friends) already works so well with our students and (is) creative at coming up with ways they can serve,” Kelly says.
‘We all have our struggles’
This past year, Kelly started teaching a service learning class at Prep. Like all community service at the school, the class is not required. It’s a one-semester elective.
“So the students who choose to take that class really have a heart for serving,” Kelly says, describing the course as a “hybrid” of actual community service and classroom-based learning about the nonprofit world.
“Our service-learning students worked so hard on that special needs beauty and beau pageant. We also had speakers come and talk to the class about their experiences being a recipient of community service. One of the best was Andrew Seago —our students hung onto his every word,” she says. Seago, who lives in the Jackson area, is quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair.
“He said, ‘We all have our struggles. The difference between you and me is, I can’t see yours. But you can see mine.’ He helped start a dodgeball tournament at Jackson Academy — and our students participated in that — that raises money for families to attend the Joni and Friends Family Retreat.”
Both as a faculty member and a Prep parent, Kelly loves how community service “develops the hearts of our students,” she says.
“No matter why they come to my office to ask about service, whatever that carrot is, whether their parents told them to or they’re trying to enhance their high-school résumé, my hope is that they develop a heart for it.
“I love being part of something where I feel like we are doing the Lord’s work and teaching our young people to see outside of themselves. I’m just like every other parent raising children in a world that is very inward focused,” she says.
On a lighter note, as a faculty member who has children attending Prep, “I try to keep my distance (from my own kids at school),” she says. Walker is a junior and Sarah a freshman, while Jordan is a sophomore at Mississippi State.
“They know where I am if they want to come say hi,” Kelly says. “Jordan loved it. She and her friends would always drop by. I don’t know if Walker has ever been in my office.” (laughs)
‘Always extend GRACE’
As Kelly has navigated life with a disabled loved one, various jobs, parenthood, and now leading high-schoolers in service at Prep, God has faithfully moved in her life, she says.
“The Lord continues to grow me in being aware and having a heart for those that are hurting and that are in need. As a Christian, I believe that’s why we’re here is to serve others and to grow in our relationship with the Lord.”
Her parents, pastors, and “deep spiritual friends (who) keep me encouraged and looking up” have all helped her along the way — not to mention the Word of God. Her favorite verse is Isaiah 43:2.
“When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire
you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”
So what does she feel is the No. 1 lesson she’s learned in life so far?
“To always have compassion for others — and that we all experience mountaintops and valleys, and to just always extend an extra measure of grace and kindness to others, because we just don’t know what others are going through.
“We all have a story that makes us who we are, and we just hope and pray that God grows us for His purposes and grows us to love each other the way Christ loved us.
“Always extend GRACE. Show kindness. Love others by the example Christ set for us. And if you could put ‘grace’ in all caps, we all need (that).”
Amen and amen.