HOMELAND PARK, S.C. (AP) - Last summer, when Kellie Cathey told husband, Scott, they were taking three Homeland Park Primary School students on a Saturday fishing trip, he figured it was a brief reward for her best-behaved pupils.
He soon learned that it was her worst-behaved students. And they’d give them the entire day.
“Two of them had never been fishing. We got to see them catch their first fish ever. It was exciting,” Cathey recalled recently. “We had a great day. None of the boys had fathers in the home, and it was good for them to be around Scott.”
The day also included a trip to the clothing store for some blue jeans, a trip to Lenscrafters for eyeglasses, and a trip to McDonald’s for some Happy Meals.
“A lot of our students come from poverty. You’d be surprised how many kids have never been to McDonald’s,” Cathey explained.
For Cathey, the fishing, the eyeglasses and the Happy Meals were all part of her life’s calling - to connect with young people who might otherwise slip through academic and social cracks, and steer them in a better direction.
It’s a desire that Homeland Park principal Christy Payne spotted quickly when she observed Cathey as a substitute teacher.
“When I saw her strengths, I knew right away, ‘This is one I’d like to have on my team,’” Payne recalled. “The first time I had an opening as principal, I thought of her immediately. She had the content knowledge, and had the demeanor it takes to teach kids this age.”
Cathey also has a passion for the underdogs and the underprivileged. Both are common at Homeland Park.
According to the South Carolina Department of Education, the school has the state’s second-highest poverty index.
The fishing story came as no surprise to Payne.
“That’s Kellie. The more challenging the behavior, the harder she works to include them,” Payne said. “As teachers, it’s easy to connect with the well-behaved kids. The kids hardest to love are the ones who need love the most.”
The love is sometimes tough. At Unity Baptist Church in Starr, where Cathey serves as director of the children’s programs and the AWANA youth program, family and friends refer to her as “The Warden.”
She makes no attempt to deny the role.
“Somebody has to be the disciplinarian,” she explains. “I think kids love you for it, even though they might not admit it.”
Cathey’s concern for children, and providing them with structure, has molded her first 44 years.
Although she comes from a broken home, Cathey enjoyed that structure through two loving parents while she grew up in Belton’s Abney Mill community. And she loved school - so much that she had perfect attendance from kindergarten through her high school graduation.
She dreamed of becoming a teacher one day, but the dream seemed to be beyond her reach when she became a mother during her senior year at Belton-Honea Path High.
She poured herself into parenting for the next 19 years, working several jobs along the way. She met Scott at one of them; in another, she worked nine years at Belton Middle School as a cafeteria worker, a job that meshed well with the children’s schedule but posed family problems at times.
“When you’re wearing a hairnet, you don’t look very distinguished. You know that some of those kids are making fun of your kids because she’s the lunch lady,” she recalls.
One summer Scott suggested that his wife - at age 36 - pursue her lifelong dream.
“I always wanted to teach. I think that had a lot to do with my dad, who never learned to read or write,” she said. “But with four kids, I didn’t see how we could do it.”
He did. She took classes at Anderson University while working full-time for the next two years.
“The hardest part was time management; I never missed a ballgame the kids were in,” she said.
In her third year of college, the schedule demands of student-teaching created another hurdle. Chasing the dream would require quitting her job.
“We were living paycheck to paycheck. I thought maybe I need to give it up,” Cathey recalled. “I couldn’t see us making it through a year with only one income.”
Scott fixed that by getting two. He bought a used lawn mower and trailer, and for the next two years earned a second income with a lawn-care business.
“If he hadn’t done that, I’d never have finished,” Cathey said.
She earned a degree at age 39, worked as a substitute for two years, and is now in her third year as a first-grade instructor. Each morning, she arrives at the school at 6:10 a.m., more than an hour earlier than required, so that she can provide extra help to a first-grade student struggling to read.
She explains the extra effort as simply a matter of being “a morning person.”
Others would say that the extra mile is Cathey’s norm.
“When I started working here, I didn’t know anyone,” Homeland office staff member Krystal Smith said recently. “Kellie started leaving little things on my desk - encouraging cards, and home-baked cupcakes and pies.
“It really made me feel welcome,” Smith said. “That’s just the kind of person she is.”
Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, https://www.andersonsc.com
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