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Editor's note"Community Champions" is a new weekly feature in which area residents who are advocates for the community are profiled. To recommend someone for consideration, send an email with the subject line 'Community Champions' to news@columbustelegram.com. Please include contact information about the person and their background. Read previously published stories on columbustelegram.com.

Kelli Keyes got her first serious taste of the real world as a preteen when her family relocated to Dallas, Texas, and she went to a massive and crowded inner-city school.

The then-12-year-old Columbus native was a bit out of her element in her new school, where guard dogs were present in each hallway. A classmate was assigned to escort her around campus on her first day, but it wasn’t exactly what Keyes had been expecting.

“She was telling me how her brother was in jail for stabbing a teacher and how she wasn’t doing drugs anymore – she just drank and smoked,” Keyes recalled in horror, recalling how surprising that conversation was at the time. “I was from a small town, I was a seventh grader. This was a whole new experience for me being the small-town girl in the big city.”

Keyes in the last eight years has become a well-known community member thanks, in part, to her work at the Columbus Public Library. There, she has spent nearly the last six years as its customer service manager. But it was those couple of years down south that shaped her.

“It had a huge impact on me,” she said. “I think that kind of changed my personality because I was kind of shy and I am not so much anymore.”

TRADING NEBRASKA FOR TEXAS

Although born and raised in Columbus, Keyes and her family relocated to the Dallas area (Garland, Texas) as she entered her teenage years so that her father could attend Criswell College and pursue his ministerial and professional higher education at the liberal arts college and divinity school.

The first public school Keyes attended in the city was a lot different than anything she had experienced before. The guard dogs and her “first-day buddy” had caused her some stress, as did her inability to successfully open up her locker that day.

“I went there one day, my first day, and I must have come out of the building looking so shell-shocked with this big pile of books because I couldn’t get into my locker. My dad was like, ‘OK we’re done. We’re going to take you to a private school,’” Keyes said.

Her father finished up his studies within the next two years and her family moved back to her hometown.

BACK HOME

Keyes was happy to be back in Columbus. She went on to graduate from Bible Baptist Christian School in town, and in 1993, she married the love of her life, Daryl Keyes, at a fairly young age.

“Our families were friends and we started a friendship that blossomed into love. We started dating when I was 17, married a year-and-a-half later,” she said. “I can’t believe 25 years have flown by.”

The two began having children and she decided she wanted to be at home with her kids.

“I was a stay-at-home mom for 15 years and it was great,” said Keyes, noting her children, Derek, 23; Aimee Jo, 20; Jenny, 18; and Andy, 13.

Keyes also was one of the people who helped her in-laws who had become ill over time, assisting in driving them to medical appointments and helping care for them.

But in the 2000s, all of the Keyes’ children were in school and she found herself wanting to get out to help provide her family with some additional income. She landed a job at JCPenney in town before long and called it “a valuable experience.”

“I learned a lot about customer service there,” she said.

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME

In 2011, Keyes came across an opportunity to join the Columbus Public Library staff in a part-time role by chance. It piqued her interest due to her lifelong love for reading, something she did a particularly large amount of during trips back and forth between Texas and Nebraska as a child.

“I didn’t know how long I would be here, but I love it,” she said, with a smile. “I trained just about everywhere. I did a little bit of everything.

“I did apply here because this was my kind of my dream job. I love books, I love people and I knew working at the library wasn’t sitting around and just reading books. You’re interacting with people.”

The following year brought some hardships for the family as her father-in-law died of cancer in April 2012. Then, in November of that year, Daryl fell off a roof for the second time while doing construction work on the job (the first time was in 2003.)

He was severely injured and it caused some setbacks. Hospital bills had piled up in the $180,000 range, but the family came across some good fortune.

“Miraculously both the Columbus and Lincoln hospitals forgave our debts and we were able to work our debt off with the other surgeons and doctors and pay off our debt in two years,” Keyes said. “I am so thankful for God’s mercies!”

Also during that time, Keyes was promoted to a full-time position at the library that came with health benefits. A year later, she was promoted again to her current role of customer service manager. Upon that promotion, she juggled her family and work commitments while also spending two years going to Central Community College-Columbus to earn her Library and Information Science certificate.

Keyes has an office in the back of the lower level of the library, but she loves being able to move around and interact with her co-workers and members of the community.

“I am able to cover every department,” she said. “People want you to help them find what they want, but you have to listen and help them find their answer or whatever it is they need. I really enjoy it.”

Library Director Karen Connell has known Keyes for several years and praised her.

“She’s so sweet. She just has a caring heart. She’s a hard worker and is going the extra mile for people,” Connell said. “We’ve worked together on a lot of projects - moving shelving was one of the biggest. We opened up the front room by removing, and moving shelving units, and getting a new service desk in the center of the space. The nonfiction department opened up as well when we replaced tall shelving units with the shorter style. This was a lot of hard work, but she’s not one to shy away from that.”

Keyes takes pride in doing her part to make the library a warm and welcoming place for people of all ages and interests. She also helps with the creation of various programming and initiatives, such as an ongoing “Food for Fines.” As part of it, people at times have the chance to bring in and donate three cans of food to help those in need while also having all of their late fees waived. The latest edition of it is coming up, running from May 26-June 1.

“This is definitely not a quiet place,” she said, with a smile, of the library.

Longtime friend and CPL Children’s Librarian Brad Hruska said Keyes is a very outgoing person and a valuable asset to the community and library.

“I think what Kelli she does here at the library – she gets people involved and gets people excited about the things that go on within the library,” he said. “She is easygoing when it comes to conversing with her and she’s a very polite individual.”

HER PASSION

When Keyes isn’t at the library, she enjoys spending time with her family. She and her husband have a farm out in the Lakeview area, where they raise sheep and other animals. It’s also where Daryl runs his Pheasant Hollow Taxidermy business.

“His shop looks like Cabela’s,” Keyes said, with a laugh.

She said she’s encouraged by Columbus’ growth throughout the last several decades, noting she has seen an increase in shopping and dining options, among others.

Keyes also remains an active book enthusiast, though she said she is more of an audiobook listener these days than one who sits down with a physical copy.

“I like to read books so I am better able to recommend or know what they’re talking about,” she said. “I do a lot of listening actually. Audiobooks - I download and listen while I work, when I fold laundry, do the dishes, work on the garden, pull weeds. I always love a good story.”

Keyes has continued to volunteer her time to various local efforts throughout the years and enjoys interacting with new people on a daily basis. Ironically, she has her years in Texas to thank for that.

“I’m very blessed to be here. My husband supported me all the way,” Keyes said. “I never thought I would be here as manager. I never dreamed. I can’t put into words how it all fell into place. But here I am in this supportive role. I can help people. My job is to help others be the best at their job and the patrons, too. I am here to serve them.”

Believe it or not, Texas is still near and dear to her heart. She ended up going to three schools over the course of her short stint down south, but seventh grade really sticks out in her mind to this day as a defining moment. All year long her teachers and peers kept asking her to lead class prayer at her Christian middle school.

“At the end of the year I finally got up the courage to get in front of the class and pray,” Keyes said. “That was like my breakthrough. I made lifelong friends down there. It was an experience – it shaped me. But I’m happy to be here in Columbus.”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.

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Managing Editor

Matt Lindberg is an award-winning journalist and graduate of the University of Kansas.

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