Maria Kelly is able to pursue her passions through her dedicated service as a leader in her community. Founder of AMOR Healing Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina, Maria, along with many adult and teen volunteers who serve at the kitchen, works diligently to provide healthy meals for people facing serious health challenges.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Maria spent her childhood moving from place to place – even living in Norway for a two-year period.
“I went to high school in Tennessee, and when it came time for college I looked all around,” she said. “But when I came to Charleston I fell in love, so I ended up coming here. College brought me here, and I haven’t left.”
Maria was a high school teacher in Charleston County for 14 years. She spent 12 years teaching Spanish and the next two years teaching English in the ESOL program (English to Speakers of Other Languages).
AMOR HEALING KITCHEN
AMOR (translated to “love”) Healing Kitchen, located at 3121 Plowground Road in Johns Island is a nonprofit organization in Charleston County where nutritious meals are prepared by teenage chefs for people facing serious health challenges. The meals are delivered to the clients on Fridays.
Maria said that her time spent with teenagers as a teacher has driven her to incorporate them into the production of the healthy meals at AMOR Healing Kitchen.
“Through working with teenagers for so long, I’ve been able to see that they have so much innate inspiration within them. I think it’s important for us, as adults, to guide them and provide them the tools they need so they can become leaders in their own communities. If you give teens the guidance, they create beautiful things,” she said.
Maria said the teen volunteers are taught culinary skills by kitchen mentors and are then able to make all of the food. They follow recipes and package it all, though adults deliver the meals.
She noted that the serving of organic and locally grown foods is an integral component of AMOR Healing Kitchen’s mission.
“Many people have become very reliant upon packaged foods and typically think of food as something that should be rushed. But I think a lot of the disease in our society comes back to the food we’re consuming. We need to change the idea that local, organic food is something exotic or not available, when oftentimes it is all around us,” Maria said.
She said that her inspiration to begin the healing kitchen significantly came from the influence of her mother.
“I was with my mom when she was diagnosed with cancer,” Maria said. “She was the one that taught me the value of cooking, of food, and of treating your body well. I would take her food when she wasn’t feeling her best, and I saw that that gave her a sense of comfort. It was a way for us to connect and a way for me to support her.”
Maria said that the results she sees coming from the kitchen reinforce its importance to her everyday: “We’ve gotten so much wonderful feedback from a lot of the clients. Hearing it directly from them truly makes it real. To see how we’ve supported people, not only physically but emotionally, during a challenging time – it’s just amazing.”
Featured on the Rachael Ray show in April 2019 for the commendable goals of AMOR Healing Kitchen, Maria said that being able to see the growth of the kitchen has been a somewhat shocking blessing.
“It’s hard to watch the movie when you’re in the movie,” she said. “I sometimes don’t realize how far we’ve come. But when I do think of the progress we’ve made it erases any doubt in my mind about where I am and what I’m supposed to be doing, because with or without me it’s happening. It’s bigger than me now. It’s very affirming, when I think about the growth that we’ve made.”
FOLLOWING HER PASSION
Maria said she has loved having the opportunity to see the various changes other organizations in Charleston are making through service and volunteerism.
“Being a nonprofit, we end up going to a lot of events and presentations that other nonprofits are attending, so I’m able to learn about so much good that is happening in the area that I had no idea was going on before. It’s been awesome to see how many other people have that same idea of doing what they’re drawn to in order to help better the community.”
Through following her own personal passions, Maria said that she has been able to spend her time doing something that truly makes her happy – and she wishes the same for others.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage,’” she said. “A lot of us get stuck in our ways; we become convinced that life has to look a certain way. If your heart is telling you to follow a different path or a different passion, be courageous. Go for it.”
Maria said she feels much of the needed changes in the world can be found through open-mindedness.
“I think we get overwhelmed with the feeling that there’s not really much we can do to change things. But really, if you just start small and look at yourself first, and then at the people around you, and eventually to your community, you would be surprised by the impact each person can make. Truly, if we could all be a little bit kinder and more open to ourselves and each other, it would probably solve a whole lot,” Maria said.
Her mother’s influence, along with the work of fellow community servants, continues to drive and inspire her every day: “Though she’s no longer here, my mom will always be an inspiration to me. She was genuinely good to everyone. And really anybody I see that stays kind and finds joy in the little things – those people inspire me. It often takes kindness and positivity to make an impact in places that need it.”
Maria said the changes within her community she has been able to make through AMOR Healing Kitchen have helped her in finding her personal purpose and have led her to gain a new perception on her own abilities.
“For me, it feels pretty simple – I think my purpose is just to serve,” she said. “I think service is what it all comes down to, and if you combine that with something that you’re passionate about then you can live a happy and fulfilling life. Pursuing my own passions in such an amazing way … it has made me realize that I can do much more than I once believed I could.”