Photo of Kellie McNelly '96

"That’s the kind of work I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to help people."

Kellie McNelly
Class of 1996

Kellie McNelly '96 serves as the executive director for Rochester Organization of Families (ROOF), which offers assistance to families and residents of Rochester. Story by Deanna Partlow. 

When community services grad Kellie Clark McNelly ‘96 was casting about for something meaningful to do with her degree, little did she know she'd dedicate her life to the small agency in Rochester that gave her a part-time job in an after-school kids program.

The year was 1998, and she found her work with the agency so fulfilling she never left. Kellie is now executive director of that organization, Rochester Organization of Families (ROOF). During her career, she has helped it grow into a haven for residents in the Rochester School District.

People who are in need or in crisis in America’s rural communities often lack access to after-school programs, food pantries and other basic services. But ROOF has provided a safety net for the small unincorporated community south of Olympia, which numbers about 12,000 residents.

“It’s a one-stop shop,” Kellie says of the organization. “Since there are no other resources here in Rochester for people, this is it, so we try to work hard with a lot of different partners.”

Located in the rambling school district building, ROOF operates a food bank used by about 2,000 people a month and Kids Place, an after-school and summer camp program that provides an academic boost for at-risk children. It offers energy and rental assistance; disaster assistance; parenting classes; and, in partnership with Centralia College, ESL classes for the large contingent of Hispanic families living in the district.

Through partnerships with other county and state organizations, ROOF refers clients who need counseling, healthcare or other emergency services.

At Christmas, ROOF coordinates Operation Santa, bringing smiles and gifts to 600 low-income kids; in summer, ROOF’s headquarters serve as a food program feeding site for about 90 kids each day; and when school starts, ROOF is there to hand out donated school supplies. It runs a community garden. It even keeps an emergency supply of diapers and dog food.

Through these services, ROOF helps about 1,000 families each year, a number on the rise. Roughly 12,000 people live in the district, a number that is growing as people are priced out of communities north of Rochester, Kellie says.

All of ROOF’s work is done with three fulltime employees, four after-school staff members, volunteers and a slender $250,000 annual budget that comes from grants and donations, Kellie says.

Most of her hours are spent on the hunt for grants and at meetings with partnering agencies. What keeps her enthusiastic are those days when she can work directly with clients, even if she’s just hauling furniture to someone’s house, she says.

“One thing I love about working here is that it’s different every single day, just because we’re doing direct service, because you never know who’s going to walk in the door,” she says.

A favorite success story is the woman who’d found a job but needed just $10 to pay the fee for her food handlers permit test. ROOF found the money, she passed the test, went to work and quickly became store manager. She also gave up smoking and drugs along the way.

“She said for the first time in her life, she was able to go back East and see her grandchildren, because her daughter would never let her see them because she was doing drugs. She told me, ‘That $10 changed my life.’”

Stories like this keep Kellie passionate about her job, she says. “That’s the kind of work I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to help people.”

She’s always felt that calling. Her compassion for others found an early outlet in Young Life, a Christian organization at Olympia’s Capital High School. After graduating, she gravitated to Saint Martin’s, where she found her niche in the community services program headed by retired Prof. Norma Shelan, who inspired her.

While a student, she fell for her future husband, Saint Martin’s grad, Steve McNelly ’96, a star on the men’s golf team. Since he was taking night classes at the base extension campuses, they met by chance when they were at the same local dance club one night – the rest is history.

Steve, now a golf professional, manages City Golf Club in Olympia. Outside work, the McNellys’ lives revolve around their two children, Brianna and Eli, sports and travel.

In reflecting upon her work over the last decade, Kellie is grateful for the support that helped ROOF weather the 2008 economic crisis and continue its operations. The first funding cuts service agencies made were those doing outreach to rural areas like Rochester.

“All those areas that are already isolated became more isolated. We’re the one stable agency in town and it’s why we work with other agencies.

“I love what I’m doing. People ask me how long I’m going to work here, and I tell them I’m just happy here. The only thing I worry about is keeping it funded… so we’re always having to ask for funds to keep going,” she says, and pauses. “But if we weren’t here, where would all these families turn for help?”

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