Terri Forrest knew her son had the potential for anything.
But getting others onboard wasn’t always easy.
Elijah Kelsey was born with his left eardrum closed, which made learning to pronounce words properly difficult.
When he couldn’t communicate, he would just stop trying. Learning issues would sometimes be seen as behavioral issues instead.
In elementary school, one teacher told him he would never amount to anything.
“Now, I am going to be the first in my family to go to college,” the 18-year-old said Friday as Give Something Back presented $1.5 million for scholarships at Rowan University and Rowan College at Gloucester County.
“This is my shot to represent countless young men and women that have faced hardships and challenges in their lives,” he said. “Give Back makes sure we’re getting the job done, too. We’re encouraged to stay on top of our grades, to never back down from the challenges that we may face along the way.”
Give Back is giving him and other students who are limited by finances a chance to go to college.
But it’s not the first help he found along his journey.
Forrest can rattle off a list of the village that helped bring her son to Rowan University and on his way to a degree, starting with Youth Exposure.
Based out of the Boys and Girls Club in Atlantic City, Forrest said Natalie Devonish and Erika Moore “were my baby sitters every other week.”
Even now, the women still check in with Kelsey.
As Kelsey went through school, his mother continued to fight for him.
“The people you thought would motivate you often told me that I wouldn’t amount to anything,” he said.
Forrest wouldn’t let that message stick.
Either would some teachers.
Muriel McFadden, who taught Kelsey at Atlantic City’s Dr. Martin Luther King School Complex, remembers a boy who would “carry his emotions on his sleeve.”
She worked with him, finding ways to calm him. And she recalls a mother and father who were willing to do whatever was needed.
Even after he left her class, Kelsey would return to her. He would even refer to her as his “other mother,” and still keeps in contact.
“He was just an exceptional little boy who needed that extra attention,” she said. “And once he got it, my God, he had it.”
He told her, “I’m never going to forget you.”
“I get so emotional about that,” McFadden said, her voice cracking. “Because that’s all I wanted, to let him know that I loved him.”
The journey took Kelsey to PleasanTech in Pleasantville, the Yale School in Northfield, and Atlantic City’s Uptown Complex before returning to MLK.
At Atlantic City High School, he was introduced to Champions of Youth by Deon Davis, who is now the alternate student trustee on Stockton University’s Board of Trustees.
His first mentor there was Jim Dine, an older white man who on the surface seemed a mismatch, his mother recalled.
But through his care for the teenager “he did a wonderful job with nurturing Elijah and pulling him through,” Forrest said.
Through that program, Kelsey also found Friday is Tie Day, founded by Darrell Edmonds in 2013.
“We encourage teens in any school to start wearing ties to school on Friday,” Edmonds explains on the organization’s website. “For one day a week, they will make a deliberate effort to not only dress like gentlemen but to also act like gentlemen.”
Growing up, family was Beach Avenue in Venice Park. Kelsey’s father was often incarcerated. Eventually his older brother would be as well. That made his mother even more determined to keep him on the right path.
“I just tried to instill in him the things that are taking place here and happening here, he doesn’t have to be involved in,” Forrest said.
Kelsey and his father now have a good, supportive relationship as well.
“My mom kept me grounded,” Kelsey said. “She made sure I was able to get the job done. She pushed me to go to college. Pushed me to stay focused. Pushed me to be different.”
She didn’t let him believe those like the third-grade teacher who said he wouldn’t amount to anything.
“I started to excel not just academically but in life,” he said. ”Better yet, I started being encouraged by the ones who prayed for me to be unsuccessful.”
He would letter in wrestling, ran track and was voted homecoming prince his junior year and prom king as a senior.
He eventually wants to run his own sneaker company, potentially called Lace.
“Eventually, I want to also give back by bringing people form my own community to help me in the future,” Kelsey said. “Give jobs to the kids that otherwise wouldn’t have a job. I want to be a mentor at the same time, showing young men how to be men in society the right way.”
He’s thankful for the scholarship allowing him to do that.
“I believe everybody’s story is unique,” Kelsey said. “It’s up to you to make the decision where to go in life.”
FRIDAY IS TIE DAY’S FIRST SEVEN MEMBERS