Carolyn Kelly was known for her sense of adventure and generosity, and even after her death, a scholarship in her name continues her mission to help others.
Kelly, who came out as transgender in the 1990s, wanted to make sure that underprivileged people could be afforded an education. Thanks to the Carolyn Kelly Memorial Education Fund, which awards $12,500 twice a year to a deserving scholar, her giving spirit lives on.
“Carolyn knew that there were thousands of transgender individuals who did not have the ability, whether mental, emotional, or financial to go through the process of transition to become who they really are,” said Joseph Audette, the director of marketing and outreach for the fund and a close personal friend of Kelly.
“It was her belief that if a transgender individual could obtain a higher education, be it through a university, college, or trade school, they could reach a point in their life to be able to become their true self.”
Kelly was a senior pilot for a major airline company when she came out as trans, at a time when American society was still trying to come to terms with someone coming out as gay. Her employers didn’t know how to handle the situation, Audette recounted, so they offered her retirement at full pay. She accepted the offer and used it as an opportunity to make investments, travel, dote on her beloved dog, Josie, and support charities such as Women and Kids in Distress, the Florida Humane Society, and the American Liver Foundation.
But she also helped her own friends reach their goals.
Audette recounted how he was looking to buy a house close to his girlfriend, now wife, 18 years ago, but unfortunately didn’t have the funds to make the down payment. He shared his disappointment with Kelly, who later made a proposal: she would provide the capital to him and he would pay it back at a generously low interest rate. He agreed, and he was able to pay her back in less than three years.
“Carolyn did not have to help me, but she cared about my girlfriend and me,” he remembers. “I thank Carolyn every day.”
Understanding the struggles that a trans person can experience, Kelly wanted to make sure that even after she passed that she could help people. She wrote the Carolyn Kelly Memorial Education Fund into her will. She died in Fort Lauderdale in 2016.
The scholarship is open to students attending a two- or four-year college or university in the United States who are transgender, women, underprivileged, or any combination of those. Seven students have received the scholarship and the next winner will be announced July 31.
Kelly loved the water, sailing the Caribbean multiple times, and Audette used a sailing metaphor for how the scholarship helps its recipients: You only need physical strength to hoist a sail or coil a line, but a captain’s license will give you a greater understanding of navigating the ocean and working a boat.
“College does the same thing,” he said. “From dealing with deadlines and time management to the presentation of reports and proper study habits, it prepares the student with real-life application of skills learned in the classroom.”
The next round of applications are due Nov. 1 and will be awarded Dec. 31. For more information about the Carolyn Kelly Memorial Education Fund, visit KellyTrust.org.