EAST TAMPA — Geri Kelly's heart has always been on stage.
The director and founder of a local acting troupe, her work has led to meeting famous actors such as Cicely Tyson and 2008 Academy Award nominee Ruby Dee.
Yet, the 59-year-old Tampa mother and wife found a satisfying career away from neon lights, in the field of education.
When Kelly graduated from Florida A&M University in 1968 at the age of 20 with a degree in speech pathology, she was too young to seek employment in Florida's education system.
"Florida didn't hire you until you were 21," she recalled.
Kelly took a position in exceptional education at a school in Thomasville, Ga. Her class consisted of 15 emotionally troubled students, all of them her age or older. "It was a challenge," she said.
Nearly midway through the school year, her mother told her she wouldn't survive unless she made some changes. The students needed to view her as an authority figure, not as their pal.
Kelly made some changes and, by year's end, students were learning and earning money from trades, such as mechanics and sewing. It was just the first of many positive differences Kelly has made in her nearly 40-year career in education.
Following that first year, Kelly got a position as a speech therapist for the Hillsborough County School District and relocated to Tampa. In time, she obtained a master's degree in speech pathology, along with certification in administration and supervision, both through the University of South Florida. She began pursuing education administration positions.
In 1989, while working as an assistant principal at Caminiti Exceptional Center, she recalls telling her then-principal and mentor, Ed McDowell, she wanted to apply for the top position at Lockhart Elementary School. While McDowell was completely supportive of her pursuit, he also warned her that, up to that time, there had only been male principals at Lockhart.
She got the position.
In her new role, Kelly believed that in order for the school to be successful, everyone on the staff — from the support employees to the teachers and the administration — had to work together.
"It's not about you as a principal," she says. "It's about a staff you can trust that comes together. They have to see the vision, and everybody on the staff has to know it."
She remained at Lockhart for nine years before moving onto other opportunities. Since 2004, she has worked as a consultant for various educational organizations, including as a substitute-teacher trainer for the school district. In January, she was asked by Florida TaxWatch and the Council for Educational Change to participate in a think tank to create a program that rewards and retains high-performing principals in the state.
While she has made her career in education, Kelly's first love has always been theater, which she believes can make a difference in the lives of minorities.
She was the founder and director of the Bay Community Players, an acting troupe that performed throughout Florida. They were the first black actors to perform at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center when it opened in 1987. They did the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.
She has always dreamed big regarding her goals for theater in Tampa. She is part of a group that promotes diversity at the performing arts center. She wants to see more involvement between the center and smaller theater groups, as well as local African-Americans.
Yet, she has also had her doubts.
In 2001, she attended the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C. She says she was "just floored" by the community support for the event and the list of top-level celebrities who attended. While there, she said she met and spoke with Cicely Tyson. Kelly told Tyson she was considering giving up the pursuit of her theatrical dreams. Tyson asked why. "If you love doing it, do it, and stop doing it with the thought that it has to be so big," Tyson said. It was all the motivation Kelly needed.
She directed the city's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Talent Showcase for eight years. In 2001, she assisted Samuel Wright in establishing the Black Heritage Festival.
Most recently, she became involved with Abe Brown Ministries, the local nonprofit group dedicated to helping incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their families achieve productive and fulfilling lives.
Last year she helped the ministry facilitate actor Charles Dutton's performance in From Jail to Yale-Serving Time on Stage, a one-man play at the performing arts center. Kelly helped to market the event, provided technical direction and acted as stage manager. The play raised money for the ministry.
She continues to help raise awareness of Abe Brown Ministries' mission by taking Dutton's performance to other cities around the state.
"She brings a level of expertise that, quite frankly, we don't have when it comes to the arts and theater," said Robert Blount, president of Abe Brown Ministries.
Kelly is preparing to celebrate a milestone birthday.
Turning 60 on May 13, she is looking forward to spending more time traveling.
Looking back at her accomplishments and challenges in two walks of life — education and the theater — she says if she had the chance to do it all over again, she would do it all the same.