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By Richard Burnett

Kelly Hurley As a little girl, Kelly Hurley knew both the heartbreak of loss and the unwavering love of family.

Her parents died from illness, three months apart, when she was four. Hurley and her twin sister were raised by their grandmother and a corps of close relatives.

“We had a good upbringing,” said the 2021 Beacon College graduate, now a teacher of children with special needs in the Orlando area. “My grandmother made sure we had opportunities. We traveled, read and learned about the world. My aunt and uncle were also present for us throughout our childhood. They made a difference.”

It would still be no easy road for Hurley as she navigated the trauma of loss. Early on, she experienced a cluster of baffling learning problems in school. Aided by her grandmother’s steady advocacy, she was eventually diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, auditory processing disorder and dysgraphia (the inability to write and express thoughts).

Hurley said she gradually improved and did well, even though some teachers resisted making any accommodations for learning disabilities such as her handwriting disorder. For years, teachers would not allow her to use a computer to do her assignments and tests.

Finally, that changed when she was in her early teens, as her school integrated computers into everyday use. For Hurley, the results were dramatic.

“It helped me a lot when we went digital,” she said. “It was easier for me to express myself in a way that could be understood. And the teachers started taking me seriously when they could understand what I was saying.”

Though her high school grades were good, Hurley felt like she had to fight for them the entire time. As she looked ahead to college, she knew she wanted things to be very different. That’s why Beacon was so appealing, with its focus on students with dyslexia, autism, ADHD and other learning differences, she said.

In 2016, as a high school sophomore, she attended Beacon’s Summer for Success program, which simulates the college experience for high schoolers. Hurley was quickly hooked on the school, signed up for the following year summer session and was eventually accepted to attend as a freshman in 2018.

The one obstacle that remained was how to pay for her education — something her grandmother and other family members couldn’t afford. Fortunately, Hurley’s sterling academic record helped her receive scholarships and other aid, including money from the state’s EASE Grant program.

“We just didn’t have the money, so I know it was the EASE grant and all the other aid I got that allowed me to go to Beacon,” she said. “When I qualified for it, I felt really good that someone else could see how hard I was working, that I was someone who had a future. It took a lot of weight and stress off me that I could put my time and work into my education.”

At Beacon, her interest in the helping professions attracted Hurley to the psychology program, where she excelled, according to Dr. A.J. Marsden, associate professor of human services and psychology — one of Hurley’s mentors, along with Dr. Nicoletta Nance, also an associate professor in the department.

In her first class with Marsden, the professor noticed Hurley’s insight, enthusiasm and rapport with other students and asked her to be a teaching assistant.

“The other students would just gravitate to her and she would warm up to them,” Marsden said. “I think she has this gift for helping others because the childhood trauma she experienced gave her empathy for others and greater maturity at a young age.”

Fast forward to today and Hurley is pursuing a career helping children with cerebral palsy. She works as an assistant teacher for the nonprofit Conductive Education Center of Orlando, where she was an intern in 2019. This year, courtesy of the nonprofit, she is taking a post-graduate course through a British college to become certified in conductive education, which teaches children with disabilities to do basic everyday tasks independently.

It is an interest, she said, that has its origins in her first job when she was a teenager working as a babysitter for neighbors whose son had cerebral palsy. She feels that experience combined with being a Beacon teaching assistant equipped her to help kids with disabilities.

“At Beacon, I learned to have patience and empathy with students who had all sorts of learning challenges, like I do,” she said. “Now the kids I work with are special needs children, who require even more patience and assistance than most others. It’s something I understand and believe in. And the center believes in me, which is a big confidence builder.”