Former foster child, now U of M medical student, receives leadership award for helping kids like him

MINNEAPOLIS — A University of Minnesota medical student receives a special award for mentoring young people.

To fully understand the depth of this award, you need to hear about Michael Kelly’s own childhood. It’s a story that began in tumultuous fashion in Duluth, Minnesota.

“I lived in a garage and ate out of a shoebox. Not the best quality of life,” Kelly said. “It was always cold in there and I got colds all the time and it was — I just didn’t have that stable doctor in my life.”

In fact, he didn’t have much stability at all.

“Growing up I was in and out of the foster care system. I’ve moved 16 times,” he said. “I have a twin sister and a younger sister who were actually placed in foster care before me and then we all got separated and never lived in the same household again. It’s like pouring a bucket of cold water over your head. It’s kind of like that shock, you think everything’s different. My school is different, my neighborhood is different, my family is different. I sleep in a different bed tonight than the night before. And I don’t know. I don’t know what got me thinking about how I want to live the rest of my life.”

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In that moment of the unknown, he knew.

“I realized that instead of becoming a victim of circumstance, I would take responsibility for my situation and just pull myself up by my boots and try to become the person that my parents basically weren’t,” he said.

For Kelly, it started at school.

“I found that through the clubs I’ve been to, through the classes I’ve been to, through studying with friends at school. That was a positive environment for me. I didn’t have too many positive environments outside of school, so I think it was natural for me to end up at school every day, come early and stay late,” he said.

On the advice of a mentor, he began volunteering at a hospital and observed medical care he himself had never received. He grew out of foster care and came to St. John’s University, where he founded a neuroscience major.

“I’m a first-generation college student, I didn’t just want to go to college, I wanted to go to trade school, now I’m in medical school,” he said.

He is now a sophomore in medicine at the University of Minnesota. While in college, he helped start a thriving mentorship program – MD Link – and received a leadership award from the State Medical Association.

He models a path for other children to navigate the foster care system.

“I probably want them to know that you can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start right where you are and change the ending,” Kelly said.

And when you consider that this is just the beginning of this career in nursing.

“Ten years ago I never thought I would be in this position, but here we are. So it just goes to show that when you’re feeling hopeless, you’re feeling down, you just don’t feel like you have a purpose, you do,” Kelly said.

And he found his.

“You can feel it in your heart, you just know it when you know it. Having been in a place where I didn’t have a home for so long, I feel at home here,” he said.

Kelly said he’s still deciding what kind of medicine he’ll go on. He’s thinking of family medicine or emergency medicine.

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