A chat with Kelley Parris, director of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County

Lured here by the area's devotion to child welfare, Kelley Parris took the post in July as head of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, with its $30 million taxpayer-supported budget.

After a bosses' day lunch with her staff recently, she met with Tampa Bay Times reporter Elisabeth Parker to talk about her desire to continue the legacy of child advocates Colleen Bevis and Dottie Berger MacKinnon and to run a tight and responsible agency. She wants to gain the trust of voters, who in 2016 will vote on the property tax that supports the agency. Ultimately, she wants to reduce child deaths in the county.

"We do good work," said Parris, who has decorated her Ybor City office with photos, including one of a granddaughter, and a framed newspaper article about her son titled "Hero." Outside of work, she has been scouring the county to find a house and a church. She also likes to cook and wants to learn to sail.

You came here from Alabama, where you grew up. Can you tell us about your childhood there?

I'm from a very small town in western Alabama where cotton was king. It was called the black belt for its rich soil that cotton was grown in. There were huge landowners. During the civil rights movement, there were marches through town to join the march in Selma. It was a scary time. The owners of the businesses boarded up their windows, thinking there would be violence. My father was driving to the next county with my brother and me. I was 5, I believe, and we came upon the marchers. One of them, a woman, had been cut horribly bad on her arm with a cotton knife, which is like a sickle. My father very quickly put her in the truck and took her to get medical attention. I never thought there was anything odd about it then, but looking back, it was probably very odd for a white man and his two children to come to the rescue of a black woman.

You grew up in the South without a traditional Southern upbringing?

True. My father was a county commissioner in the next county, which was heavily minority, Greene County, Ala. When I was in high school, I had black friends I picked up and took to school. They still had segregated proms then, and I went to the black prom with a friend. So the police called my dad. When I got home, my dad said, "Where have you been?" I said I was at the prom, and he asked, "Whose prom?" I said our black students' prom. He said, "I was just wondering if you were going to tell me the truth."

What other things shaped you?

My early education was in Catholic schools, and it was ingrained in me that society as a whole needs everyone to give back in whatever way they can. I love systems of care and solving problems, so I guess this is my niche.

What do you think of the new pope?

I absolutely love the pope. I think we're going to see a resurgence of young people coming back to the church. My hat's off to him. It is about faith, not politics.

Have you found a home church?

I think I've been to every Catholic church in Tampa. I like St. Peter Claver Parish on Nebraska Avenue and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church on 11th Avenue.

And you're house hunting?

Yes, I've been all over Hillsborough County. My ex-husband is from St. Petersburg, so I was familiar with the area. I came in June, and I have found everyone very welcoming. The only one who hasn't been is the guy who gives parking tickets. I think he's had about enough of me. I've talked him out of it every time, but the last time, he said: "The county commission is not an excuse!"

Your ex-husband is Marty Lyons, former New York Jets defensive end?

Right. And that's my son. (She points to the article on her wall.) The hero.

Tell us that story.

I was about 30 and it was Halloween, pitch black night when I was driving home and hit a pothole. My pickup flipped over and rolled down an embankment in the middle of nowhere. My son Rocky, now a doctor, was 5. I couldn't see because of the blood. I could move my fingers but this arm was stuck through my chest and the other was shattered. I couldn't pull myself up the hill, so Rocky pushed and I dug my fingers into the earth. Then I said I couldn't go farther. He reminded me of the book, The Little Engine That Could. He said, "Mama, think about the little train." So we went on. (She wipes her eyes.)

I lost a lot of my long-term memory in that wreck. That doctor sewed my gums around my teeth. He pulled bone and cartilage out of my throat to make my nose. He built a PVC cage around me. I lived in this cage until my shoulders healed.

I can't tell at all looking at you.

I can see it every time I look in the mirror. I can feel the wire under my eye. I look completely different. I don't know that you ever get used to it.

It might make you less attached to your physical appearance?

Yes, truly, I don't regret one thing. It gives me a deeper understanding of people with physical or mental challenges.

What's that pile of letters in front of your computer?

It's there because I don't ever want to forget. I got this letter today. (She opens one.) I volunteered to do a program with these women in Montgomery Women's Facility, a prison in Alabama. Most of them are in for killing their abuser. They were women who had probably never had a parking ticket prior to that. We call them the Super 10. The thing they struggled with most was not being able to see their children. For anywhere from eight to 24 years they have not been able to feel like they contributed to anything. I was talking to these women, and they decided they wanted to do something for victims of human trafficking. We found an orphanage in Moldova, a Christian refuge for girls often sold to Russia for sex trafficking. (It is) called Stella's Voice. I began to solicit donations of yarn. I got yarn from all over the country. They began to crochet for the orphans. The ancillary benefits of this go far beyond the articles of clothing for the children.

The Super 10 must have hated for you to leave.

It liked to have killed me to leave them. This is what I mean when I say everybody has something they can contribute. When I found out we (the Children's Board of Hillsborough) were funding Abe Brown Ministries, which has a program to link children with their incarcerated parents, it was like a bucket list thing for me.

(She reads from the letter from one of the women in prison.) "As for yarn donations, you know us, we always need yarn, especially since winter is approaching fast." (She's thinking about the children in Moldova, Parris says of the letter writer.) "Connie and I were talking the other day (she notes that Connie is her favorite) and we thought it would be nice if we could have a personal donation to make gifts for our family members." (Parris puts the letter down.)

All these many years they were in prison they have not been able to give any gifts to their children or grandchildren. So, I guess I better get on that.

Sunday Conversation is edited for clarity and brevity.

A chat with Kelley Parris, director of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County 11/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 8, 2013 6:28pm]

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