She was 18 years old and fleeing a threatening situation — a home in which she experienced routine physical and emotional abuse.
“I decided it would be easier for me to live on the streets and wonder whether I’d be beaten up, [rather than] stay there and know I would be,” Kellee said. “I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
The Desired Effect
Kellee grew up in the suburbs of Denver with parents who fought and a brother who was her hero. At age 9, on the cusp of adolescence, she drank alcohol for the first time and came to desire the effect.
“If we weren’t given the beer, we were stealing it,” she said. “After everyone got drunk, we’d go around getting the drinks people didn’t finish. We put it all in one cup and made these crazy concoctions — and we’d have our alcohol.”
By her early teens, Kellee was drinking daily and beginning to experiment with other drugs. Her favorites were amphetamines — speed, uppers, wake-ups, white crosses — and marijuana.
“The 16th Street Mall [in Denver] used to be a cruising strip,” she said. “When I was a teenager, that’s where we went to get our drugs and alcohol.”
Addiction and alcoholism ran in the family. And by the time Kellee was 16, both had consumed her. When she wasn’t taking speed and snorting coke, she was straining to hold her life together.
While in high school, she started a business providing respite care for parents of developmentally disabled children. At the same time, she worked at a school serving the same population and considered becoming a nurse like her mother.
“I was a very responsible drug addict and alcoholic — until I wasn’t,” she said. “I was successful and started my business at 17. But by the time I was 19, I started dropping out of everything.”
Kellee’s own behavior came as a wake-up call. Her personality changed, and she was well aware of the toxicity that was growing within her.
“My anger was getting out of control,” she said. “I was angry with everybody all of the time.”
When she ended up homeless the year after high school, Kellee continued to drink, use and smoke. She was living in the Denver area and sleeping in her car, often having close calls with the dangers of street life.
“I was attacked one night,” she said. “He grabbed me and jerked me around, but I had this straight razor rigged in the palm of my hand and went across his face with it. He promptly left.”
Around this time, when Kellee was just 19, she began attending women’s 12-step meetings. She got clean, worked on her sobriety and developed relationships with other women, including a wise and influential sponsor. It took time, but she found a job, saved up and moved from her car to an apartment of her own.
By the time Kellee was 21, she was getting her life back from the clutches of addiction — the thief who seized her life nearly a decade before. She was working and taking college classes in Fort Collins. Her future was limitless and unwritten.
But as she crossed the threshold into adulthood, things came crashing down. A sudden car accident left her body broken and her spirit shattered. The severe injuries she sustained in the collision put her on disability, unable to work and alone in her apartment. She was clean and sober, but not well.
“When I was 25, I had my first psychotic break and was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder,” she said. “For the first 20 years after that, I isolated. I was having psychotic breaks every three to six months and was in and out of the hospital for the first 10 years.”
Kellee hid from the world and lived in perpetual pain. Her struggles with mental health came to a head 15 years ago, when things got serious enough to warrant residential treatment. Her brother helped her find a rehabilitation center in Texas. It was an uphill battle — one Kellee wasn’t eager to fight — but a breakthrough was beginning.
“One day I was channel surfing and a Billy Graham program was on,” she said. “I stopped for a minute and it said, ‘if you want help, call this number.’ … I called the number and it was a real person. She asked me if I’d like to turn my life over to God, and I said ‘yes.’”
Kellee had gone to Texas a non-believer with suicidal tendencies. She returned with a Bible in her hand and a smile on her face.
She returned to Fort Collins and — as the woman on the phone had advised — read the book of John and found a solid church. While visiting Colorado Springs a few years later, she went to church with her brother and found her spiritual home. And she moved to the Springs in 2009 just to be closer.
“I knew I wanted to move down here, because he was down here and so was the church,” she said.
Kellee still wasn’t able to work. But she began attending classes at AspenPointe and was encouraged to become a peer mentor, volunteering to help others with the same diagnosis. She excelled in that position and soon was volunteering on a full-time basis.
In 2010, she joined the National Alliance on Mental Illness in helping facilitate support groups and she quickly climbed the ranks, eventually going to nationals to become a state trainer. In the past six years, she has trained all of Colorado’s state trainers, helped launch two NAMI programs and received numerous awards. She was on the NAMI board in 2014 and sometimes speaks to crowds of up to 700 people about her own experience with mental illness.
“By sharing my story, I want to be a beacon of hope,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of growth in myself. I want to share that.”
A Higher Calling
In 2013, Kellee started working in the shelter at Springs Rescue Mission (when there were only 65 beds). As shelter programs grew, Kellee took on more responsibilities.
“One of the reasons I feel like I’m a fit here is that I’ve experienced the gamut,” she said. “I’ve been homeless, I know a lot about addiction and I know about mental illness. … I believed in the organization and the work it was doing.”
When the women’s shelter opened in 2015, Kellee was an obvious choice for a coordinator position there.
“This is my calling,” she said. “God has me here. And until he has me somewhere else, this is where I’ll be.”
Kellee can’t work full-time because of her disability. But she does volunteer extensively at the Mission, helping out in the women’s advanced shelter program (nicknamed “Esther”) and teaching life skills classes for guests.
Since working in the women’s shelter, she has gone through more trials — but she’s kept the faith. In June 2017, a side effect of medication caused her to pass out and hit her whole face on a concrete floor. It was quickly determined that she had sustained a TBI (traumatic brain injury) and was severely cognitively impaired.
“God, the diet and my support system pulled me through the cracks,” she said. “In February 2018, I was just mildly impaired. And in April of this year, I tested average to above average on everything.”
Last December, she once again experienced difficult health issues when she had a transient ischemic attack (a TIA is a mini-stroke caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain). But the stroke had no lasting impact. In fact, she returned to work on Christmas Eve.
“I had so many people praying for me,” she said. “God has pulled me through so many things it’s not even funny.”
It has been almost 40 years since Kellee overcame the cycle of homelessness and addiction in her life, and 15 since she began to take hold of her mental health. She attributes these blessings to her relationship with God, a good diet, her support system and hard work. Oh yeah, and Billy Graham.
“Because of my past, I think I was angry at God,” she said. “When I was diagnosed with a mental illness, I got even more angry at God. But from the time I saw that Billy Graham special on TV, life has gotten better and better.”
Her relationship with God isn’t the only one that’s gotten better over the years. She says her brother has been the most significant person through all her ups and downs: the one who never left her side; the one she couldn’t have done it without.
“I’ve always called my brother my hero — because he really is,” she said. “‘We were standing in his living room one day, and he looked at me and said, ‘Kellee, you’re my hero.’ I was like, ‘oh, wow.’ It brought me to tears. Sometimes it still does.’”