Marion- Sometimes thankfulness and gratitude can be found hanging out in some of the most unlikely places. When you discover them there, their presence can be all the more impactful on our lives. We expect to find grateful people among those who have been blessed with good health, successful careers, strong family connections, and things we often consider valuable—homes, cars and such. We don’t expect them among those who have been dealt a bad hand—over and over.
But when MTCC Student Kimberly Hensley stood before a group of scholarship donors recently at McDowell Technical Community College, she gave thanks for what their gifts have meant for her ability to attend college and pursue her career goals and dreams, despite a spate of heartbreaking and tragic events in her life over the last several years.
“I am so grateful that there are people like you all who are willing to help a stranger who needs help to attend college,” she told them. Without federal financial aid and a scholarship from the Crane Fund for Widows and Children, Kimberly might not have been able to attend college this year.
As she later recounted some of the events of her life, she went on to give thanks for friends, church family and McDowell Tech faculty and staff who have helped and supported her so much over the past year—because that is who she is and that is what she is: Thankful.
Hensley’s Nursing Journey Up-ended
The path that brought Hensley to the speaker’s podium is full of sadness and tragedy, tempered with lots of hope and inspiration.
Hensley started nursing school at McDowell Tech 14 years ago, in the fall of 2008, fulfilling one of her lifelong dreams. But shortly after she started school, she had to leave the program to help take care of her mother who was having a serious mental health crisis. It was disappointing decision to have to make, but commitment to family came first to her.
When she was able, Kimberly began working in childcare, another one of her loves, to make ends meet. “I really enjoy helping people, especially children and those in need, so it was a natural fit for me,” she said. Later, she came back to McDowell Tech to complete a short-term credentialing program in childcare to make her more valuable to her employer and the children she worked with.
Over the years, Kimberly worked with children in pre-kindergarten programs, as well as school-age children enrolled in programs at the Corpening Memorial YMCA in Marion.
Kimberly’s love for children was not limited to her professional employment, however. She and her husband, Paul, were also trying to have children of their own, but after having two miscarriages, it did not look like natural childbirth was going to be possible for her.
That’s when she and Paul decided to become foster parents for children who were in the custody of McDowell County Departments of Social Services (DSS). “We wanted to make a difference in their lives, and we knew that we wanted to adopt if the children ever became available for adoption,” she said. She and Paul began training classes to become foster parents in January, 2021 and completed the class in March of that year.
Shortly after they were licensed as foster parents, she and Paul were blessed to have an infant foster daughter placed in their home, and she continues to live there as DSS works toward reunification with the toddler’s parents. (Hayley’s given name has been changed for privacy reasons in this story.)
Adding to her joy, Kimberly and Paul decided it was time for her to reclaim her dream of becoming a nurse, and last fall, she began taking classes to prepare her to re-enter McDowell Tech’s nursing program, 14 years after she first started. In addition to American History, Nursing Exam Prep and classes in Medical Terminology, she completed Nurse Aide (CNA) classes during the fall of 2021 and spring of 2022. She made a “100” in her CNA class, which made her especially proud.
To accommodate her new schedule, she shifted to a part-time position in childcare, working in the YMCA’s wrap-around program at Glenwood Elementary School.
But the blessing and joys of raising her first child and preparing for nursing school were short-lived, as Kimberly’s mother, whom she had cared for many years, was institutionalized due to continuing mental health concerns, and her grandfather passed away this past January.
But the greatest tragedy of all occurred when her husband, Paul, died unexpectedly on March 26 of this year, Kimberly’s birthday. He had been sick with what appeared to be a stomach bug, but unbeknownst to either of them, he had quickly developed an upper GI bleed that ultimately led to his death.
The months that have followed have been some of the hardest days of her life, but Kimberly has persevered with the help of friends and church family. Kimberly began riding the bus to East Side Baptist Church, now known as Nebo Crossing, when she was just two years old and members of the church have become her substitute family more and more as time has gone by.
One of her best friends, Bridget Burnette, and Bridget’s mom, Barbara, have been particularly close and have provided her with unbelievable support since Paul’s death, she says. (Bridget is also a teacher in McDowell Tech’s Adult High School Program.) “I talk with people. That’s how I deal with ‘my stuff,’” she said.
Bridget gave Kimberly a special gift shortly after Paul’s death to uplift and encourage her as she grieves his loss, continues to parent Hayley, and studies for her nursing classes. When she started to take pre-requisite classes for nursing school last fall and took the TEAS class, she made Paul a promise that she wouldn’t drop out this time, for whatever reason. When she was accepted into the inaugural class of McDowell Tech’s new Associate Degree Nursing Program, she knew that she had to keep her promise to Paul and not drop out—for any reason—even his death.
Bridget’s gift, a box of 72 envelopes and small gifts for her to open weekly and on special occasions, has helped her immensely over the last few months, even as more tragedy has befallen her. Most recently, her brother was sentenced to life in prison, without parole, for murder. Those little gifts and notes from Bridget have given her hope on days like that.
“My family imploded,” she said. “But I keep on going with the help of my friends, by talking, by going to church, and even hanging on to my sometimes odd sense of humor. My classmates have learned me well enough to know to check on me when my sense of humor seems a little out of place.”
Her new instructors have also become an integral part of her support system. “The nursing staff at McDowell Tech is incredible,” she said. “Ms. Huffman frequently checks to see how Hayley and I are doing, and Valerie, Sarah and Anna Talley came to my house to bring goodies and check on me after Paul died. A bunch of McDowell Tech staff came to his funeral. Apparently, he was well thought of at the college.” (Paul worked in custodial services for ABM, the company that has the cleaning contract at McDowell Tech.)
Financially, she was fortunate that she and Paul owned their own mobile home, but living costs and raising a child can still be expensive, so she was beyond grateful to receive a scholarship from the Crane Fund for Widows and children this year, as well as a Pell Grant and help from the Workforce Investment Opportunity Act (WIOA) Program. She also received help from the college’s food pantry, and she continues to work about 16 hours per week.
“I tell people all the time that it takes a village to raise a nursing student, and with me, it’s especially true,” said Kimberly. “I have so many things on my plate, and receiving the Crane Scholarship and other help at McDowell Tech has made it less stressful, instead of piling onto my problems. Crane and McDowell Tech are helping me become a nurse, and helping all of the patients I will work with when I become a nurse.
“When Paul passed away, I didn’t realize how many supports we had until I needed them,” she continued. Her in-laws have been particularly helpful with childcare when she’s working.
Looking Forward to the Future
While Kimberly understands that she has to deal with her own grief and many losses, she chooses not to dwell too much in the past. She absolutely adores Hayley, she says, and wants to provide the best future for her that she can, for as long as she has her. “Hayley gives me a reason for living,” she said. “She gives me a purpose.”
One day, Kimberly would like to become a labor and delivery or pediatric nurse and complete her Bachelor of Science in Nursing, depending on timing and her finances. Given her love of children and nursing, either of these specialties is a natural fit for her, she says.
“Kimberly is obviously a strong and resilient young woman,” said Dr. Brian S. Merritt, MTCC President. “We look forward to seeing her walk across the stage in 2024 to receive her nursing pin and Associate Degree in Nursing. I am certain that she will make a wonderful nurse. As we enter this holiday season, Kimberly’s gratitude reminds us of the importance of giving thanks every day for those who have helped us get where we are. And for those of us who have been blessed in life, our scholarship donors—like the Crane Fund for Widows and Children, the McDowell Chapter of the NAACP, Dr. George Ellis and others—remind us of the importance of sharing with others and giving from the abundance of our own blessings.”