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Overcoming her own adversities to help others

CAMBRIA – Kimberly Kennedy, a 32–year–old woman who graduated from Niagara University on Saturday, defines the word non-traditional in so many ways.

Kennedy, who has overcome adversities that would have been career–ending for many people, calls herself a survivor, not a victim of circumstances.

The Washington State native was forced to grow up quickly with an absent father who was in prison and a drug-addicted mother who ended up brutally murdered in an unsolved case related to her drug use. Kennedy herself was sexually assaulted, something she said she only recently came to terms with.

Throughout these trials she and her twin sister, Kelly, were essentially raised by their grandmother, Shirley Kelly, and her husband, Larry Kelly, who Kennedy said she has always called her dad.

She graduated from high school with honors in 2001 “to show the world that children of parents who suffered from drug dependency were not doomed to the same fate.”

Kennedy said, “I wouldn’t be the woman I am without the love and support of my grandparents. They believed in me even when I doubted myself.”

After high school she and her grandmother owned and operated a successful bakery in Onalaska, Wash. But Kennedy wanted more, and taking a chance class in psychology changed her life.

How she got from Washington State to Niagara University is another life-changing story.

She and her husband, Appleton native Jason Kennedy, met through a multi-player computer game called Big Barn World and eventually started a relationship outside the game.

She moved to Western New York in 2013 to pursue a double major in psychology and gerontology with a double minor in women’s studies and statistics. Studying gerontology was a way to thank her grandparents. She recently completed an internship at Our Lady of Peace Nursing Care Residence in Lewiston.

She plans to immediately start graduate studies in mental health counseling this summer at Niagara.

Her positive attitude, exemplary academic performance and a plan to give back in the field of gerontology led her to be chosen in March by the North Atlantic Region of Soroptimist International of the Americas for a $5,000 Ethel F. Lord Fellowship Award.

With an ever-present smile and home-baked goodies, Kennedy met with The Buffalo News to talk about her history and her future.

How did you meet your husband?

He lived in New York and I lived in Washington State and we met over a social media gaming site. It’s very similar to Farmville. It’s called Big Barn World. We were playing the game together and it’s social, so you can talk to people, like Facebook. So we started talking, then texting and then started calling each other. When we first met, we didn’t think it would lead to anything. We lived 1,900 miles apart. I flew out here to meet him. We dated long distance for two years. We got married and then I moved out here. I finished my associate’s before I moved here.

You owned a bakery in Washington. What made you decide to go back to school?

I went back to school on a fluke. My cousin wanted to be a pharmacy technician and was so afraid to go back to school that I went with her. I love to learn ... I had to take an Intro to Psychology class and I fell in love with it.

Is your grandmother still living?

Yes she is 81.

How did she feel about you leaving the business?

She understood. My grandma is very supportive. She asked what I was going to do. I said eventually I’d like to get my doctorate in psychology and be a psychologist. She said, “If that’s what you want to do. I support you.”

What did she think when you decided to meet up with someone you met online?

My grandparents are very traditional. So when I told her I was talking to this guy from New York, she said, “What if he is a serial killer?” His family thought the same thing.

But it was a huge dive into the unknown, wasn’t it?

It was scary. I finished my associate’s and my husband and I decided that whatever college in whatever state gave me the best scholarship, that’s where we’d be living. So he was open to living in Washington and I was open to living in New York. I was constantly visiting him here in New York, but I had never lived in New York. I had never seen the snow. We got married in December 2012, so it snowed on our wedding.

So Niagara University won out. How was your experience?

People are so friendly here. I grew up in a big city. I grew up in Tacoma, Wash.

You had to deal with a lot of tough stuff growing up, didn’t you?

My mother’s mother, my maternal grandmother, my Grandma Shirley and her new husband, Larry, raised me and my sister. My mom was all over the place and was heavy into the drugs.

So you were really raised by your grandmother.

My mom was in the picture, but from the day I was born, we were at my grandparents’ house. Since I didn’t know my father, I called my Grandpa Larry, dad. I still call him dad.

Both your mom and biological dad had drug issues?

She was into meth, she was heavy into meth ... My father was also heavy into drugs and was in prison off and on. My grandma said he needed to get clean, but he chose a different life. He was in prison for years.

So your mom was in with some bad dudes. What happened to her?

In April, right after Easter, we found out that she had been killed. I was 12 years old, almost 13. For a lot of years, I didn’t know the story. We were so young we didn’t understand ... The story is she went out to get drugs for somebody or get drugs for herself and they were going to teach her a lesson. She probably owed them some money and so basically, according to the police report, she was shot in the back of the leg to be brought down and then shot two or three times in the head. The toxicology report came back that she had meth in her. It was in an alley and nobody saw anything. There’s houses all around, but nobody says anything. Nobody was ever charged. It was a closed case, but recently, about a year ago my (older half) brother got a call from somebody who looks at closed cases and they reopened it.

If your mom had raised you, you would have had a whole different life.

I know that. We used to go over to her apartment and I saw my mom get beat up. That’s why my grandparents tried to keep us. I was about 10 and they were hurting my mom. They broke her ribs and stuff. One time she threw her boyfriend’s drugs away and he was yelling up at the window and she had us ducking down in case he shot at us.

It seems like you really had to deal with a lot.

It gets worse. When I was 16 years old, I was raped by my boyfriend. I never told anybody. I only told my grandmother a couple of years ago. I kept it inside because I thought it was my fault. I didn’t tell my story until I was at Niagara University and took a course in women’s studies.

How did you stay so positive through all this?

Honestly, I have no idea. The positive outlook in life, I think, came from my grandma. She is such a strong person. She had to bury her child. No one should ever go through that.

Why did you choose to devote your future to gerontology?

I’ve always felt I was in the wrong generation. I feel that probably because I was raised by my grandparents. I always fit in well with older people.

You said you want to change the current system in nursing homes. Why?

The system needs to be changed. I feel like, especially in a nursing home setting, there needs to be more resources for individuals. People don’t understand what happens in a nursing home. You lose your dignity. You lose your independence. Everything is stripped away from you and you are put away from your family. I want to make a change.

You also said you wanted to do something with your minor in women’s studies.

My friend Korena Linkowski and I actually want to start a support group for survivors of sexual assault. She’s a survivor. I’m a survivor.

email: Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email