Hi I'm Kelsey, Nice to meet you!
I had lunch with my pastor today - one of the best humans you’ll meet in your entire life - and told him I kind of hate myself lately because I feel like I’m worried more about Lululemon yoga pants and perfect abs than anything and the true me does not give a flying fuck about either of those. He said to just continue to tell my story and he’s not wrong.
I was recently trying to update my media kit and blog pitches and I felt gross as I wrote the “About Me” section. “Fitness blogger?” Delete, I drink way too much beer. “Disability advocate?” I guess, but I make so many inappropriate cripple jokes that doesn’t seem fitting either. “Christian Blogger” GAG GAG GAG SO NOT ME. I love Jesus and totally believe He’s real and we’re besties, but usually those blogs get v self-helpy and I am not qualified to give advice to a deaf toddler. None of those titles are bad, but none of them felt genuine so I left it, and tried not to think about it.
Then I had a royal melt down at a completely innocent party for something he had about 10% to do with and realized I was being bat shit crazy, brought my feverish self upstairs and just started writing and what came out is the following. I love making people laugh, and I love hosting events and teaching yoga, but I’ve come to realize 95% of my followers have no idea who I really am aside from the kinda hot disabled chick who likes to work out and is potentially gay for some blonde chick who lives in SA. This revelation was infuriating for me, because I strive so hard to be real in my social media: you always know when I have my period, you always know when I’m OBK, you definitely know when I’ve gone out with someone and they’ve screwed up and you’re always invited to yoga.
You know those personality tests that tell you what your main motivator in life is? I took one recently and was 0% surprised with the results: people. I could care less about being rich, successful by the world’s standards, anything resembling the American dream and status quo in general.
The happiest stage of my life was that when I was living in a third world country with one of the largest churches in the world and living with my best friend and soulmate. Fran and I lived together, worked together, had all of the same friends, and when she got home I’d usually already have dinner planned. No joke, I was/am her wife. She’s the nicer version of me, and I’m the louder version of her. We also started (and failed) our first business together - Project Yum. Yes, we tried to start a baking company. Despite our best efforts at market research (asking our friends and fellow interns) we still wound up with that dreadful name and equally atrocious dark red boxes and because we were broke, lived in Africa, and I have baller handwriting we decided to skip branding stickers and I hand “calligraphied” them. Calligraphied isn’t a real word, but if it were, it would be incredibly generous as none of them matched - aside from the fact that they all looked like shit. We lovingly refer to Pro Yum as our first non-profit because it didn’t make profit.
We were consistent though - consistent in fucking up all of our recipes. We’d be too busy playing “would you rather” with both the best and the absolute worst choices of single males within our mega church and would replace sugar with salt or salt with sugar and sometimes we just weren’t sure. South Africa’s chocolate chip cookies are definitely not up to American standards, and in small batches mine are AWESOME, hence part of the idea for Pro Yum. However, with our lack of calculations, sometimes our cookies spread and sometimes they were solid little balls. Have no fear, being the creative human being that I was, I decided that we would just fill an entire cookie sheet with dough and cut them and call them “cookie bars.” Therefore, we needed to try a lot of cookie dough and also we got very fat. I own the selfie queen title but even her royal highness knows when to pump the reverse camera brakes.
Before we lived together, we somehow convinced ourselves we were going to sell R10,000 worth of baked goods at an upcoming event and stayed up until 2 AM and back at it at 6 AM for an entire week while baking in my small apartment kitchen and sharing my tiny twin bed. We didn’t make our 1,000 items and of what we did make we didn’t sell half of. Instead, for the next month (minimum) at every stoplight we pulled to, we would hand a cookie out the window to the lucky beggar on the corner. Sometimes they gave them back. That was a low point.
We moved past our Pro Yum days and went on a diet. Maybe not the most healthy of measures, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t print out fitspo pictures from Pinterest and paste them on the insides of our cupboards just to get some perspective. (Disclaimer: I would never ever support this now, but I do think it’s v funny we did that). It worked. While still full time with Hillsong, I was still serving at all of their events and conferences my favorite of which was Men’s conference. I could pretend that it was because I prefer bro food or that I basically am a bro myself, but we all know that at the end of the day I’m the biggest flirt any of us know and Afrikaans men turn me into a living, breathing, heart in the eyes emoji. More on that topic later, as well as my four undeniable lines that can get me absolutely anything I want from an Afrikaans man at a bar (how Fran and I fund our tequila habit).
All of the women at Hillsong want to volunteer with this conference, because duh, but somehow Fran and I got the best volunteer spots for prime flirting and our diets had worked wonders. My parents had just visited and brought with them a pair of $13 faux leather leggings/pants I had ordered from Forever 21 and despite their modest dress code, I somehow worked in said leggings and when we weren’t offering boerwors to all of the Afrikaans men or being the only females in an entire venue of men allowed to show where their seats were, we would go off and have photo shoots on the model cars in the parking lot. But, sometimes that was too tiring so we’d head over to Crystal Towers.
Crystal Towers is the hotel across the street from church, we’d steal their parking, take naps in the backseat of our cars during long days of serving and also sneak into their hotel pool. I still do that actually - I walk in with my American accent, act like I own the place and read in my bikini while I get incredible wine brought to me poolside. It’s a great means to get over asshole exes who cheated on you, that I can promise.
Now that Project Yum was out of our lives, it made room for other occasional deliciousness: enter here the Cape Town burger scene. Sigh.
Granted that’s my response now. There was a season of my time abroad I had a legitimate fear of burgers. When I was a kid, I really liked hamburgers. I was weird though, I wouldn't put ketchup or mustard or cheese on them. I would occasionally be down for caramelized onions on them, but I think that was more foodie K coming out more than anything. I never gave burgers that much thought.
When I moved overseas I realized that a lot of people would use a fork and knife for everything. One friend even joked about how Americans are uncivilized in how they eat things like pizza, sandwiches and burgers with their hands. I took this as that's what everyone was thinking, and started getting very nervous at the thought of eating those foods in front of others. Fran suggested that we get people to go out to a restaurant called Hudson's that was well known for their burgs and shakes. Seeing that she was my best friend, I assumed that I could confide in her about my burger issue and she would be kind and understanding. WRONG. She laughed. And laughed. And laughed. And played a joke on me and told the Hillsong pastoral team that I was struggling with my confidence so badly that I couldn't eat burgers in front of others.
The icing on the cake was when the most loving, caring pastoral care member literally sat me down on a couch for a counseling session about my burger issues, not knowing that Fran had mentioned that just to amuse herself and make me uncomfortable. While my face was red the entire time, what River (the pastoral counselor) said was spot on: it all boils down to pride. It didn't matter what other people's opinions were on my burger eating habits (or anything really). If I liked burgers, I should eat burgers. If I wanted to eat it with my hands and others didn't that was okay. If I wanted to eat it with a fork and knife, that was okay too. For goodness sakes if I wanted to eat it with my face like a dog, while that actually was a little weird, it was still okay.
Hamburgers, River, Fran and Africa in general helped me to come to terms with myself and let go of the expectations I felt were put on me in so many ways that never seemed to fit.
Along with our shenanigans came trips to the winelands and dreaming about how to best use our lives to impact others and having regular DMCs which changed my life. A “DMC” is a deep meaningful conversation where both parties enter the conversation with three encouragements followed by one suggestion for the other person to work on. When people ask me why I love Fran so much I skip trying to list all of the reasons, because they could fill a library that rivals the one of Belle’s most wild dreams, and I leave them with the truth: She loved the bullshit out of me. It’s easy to love someone when they’re whole, when they’re at their best, and when they’re able to enrich your life. I had nothing to offer her but a love for life and a willingness for adventure. She was 26, had lived in more than quadruple the countries than most people visit in their entire lives, had multiple degrees and saw my hot mess, baggage filled of a 19 year old self and said “I choose YOU to be my best friend,” and never looked back. Fran is/was the most incredible, undeserving gift I’ve ever been given and even if nothing else profound happens in my life I will always believe that Jesus loves me because he showed me it through a little blonde African nugget.
But Fran wasn’t my main nugget. In fact, I had lived in South Africa for six months prior to meeting Fran, moved back short term to the USA and made a permanent move to Cape Town before knowing of her existence. I moved to Cape Town because I fell in love.
Uphold Global is a big huge love story. I say that every time I have the privilege to speak about it, and I mean it more every time I say it. Uphold Global was unintentional, accidental and a divine experiment. I lived in South America and South Africa my first year after school, and that was probably not the way things were supposed to go. The organization I was with said they had a perfect spot for me in South Africa but I said no way Jose because 1. I was terrified I’d be living in a hut with Lions (sadly 100% true) and 2. I wanted to meet someone named Jose. I informed them that I was “called” to South America and needed to go volunteer there when honestly I was probably just selfish and wanted to take cute selfies with poor kiddos with snot on their faces. I was a horrible human being. I now refer to myself as a recovered Christian asshole.
I worked with children that had been removed from previously abusive homes and was kicked, bit, spat on, and sworn at every day of my life. The children would ask me about my arm every day, which I had no problem with. My years of bullying had taught me to respond with “That’s just the way that God made me!” My years of working with children in America taught me to break it down “You have blue eyes, I have brown. You have ten fingers, I have eight.” Eventually people get it - except these children. They’d look up my sleeves for the remainder of my fingers and when they came up dry would make up stories as to which animals had eaten them. I learned that the reason these children couldn’t understand why my arm is the way it is, was because they had literally never seen someone like me. If I were born with a disability in SA there’s a 90% chance I wouldn’t have been allowed to go to school. I found out that Hillsong was starting a partner project with the only school in the Western Cape which would allow children like me to go to school, met the kids once and made a deal with God that I would love these children like He loves them for the rest of my life.
I was daily covered in snot, slobber, kisses, and hugs from world’s most precious children. I learned the hard way to wear my hair in a bun because the girls didn’t understand that white girl hair doesn’t braid like theirs and I learned that my playfulness was finally appreciated in the culture I was immersed in. When they’d see me for the first time in the day I’d have to get on my knees and sit down or they would knock me over with their walkers, crutches, body slams and love. That’s powerful. That’s how Jesus loves. That’s how I want to love.
I had 200 children and I also had a son. His name was Buhle and we connected on my very first intro visit to the school when I still had to wear an oversized volunteer tee so they would know I was safe to talk to. We spoke 0% of the same language but his naughty eyes caught my naughty eyes and from that moment we were family. Mischief runs in our veins and skin color doesn’t matter. Little to my knowledge, this little boy was the naughtiest child in the school and the counselors referred to him as the leader of the “little gangsters” and they weren’t wrong. Buhle had grown out of his need for wheelchairs but still wanted one, because he liked doing wheelies and would steal them from children who needed them. Buhle would play jokes on teachers in class by getting every child in the room to do something naughty simultaneously, except himself. He knew I wouldn’t send the entire class to the principal, but he also knew he couldn’t be blamed. I became the Buhle whisperer. I’ve always loved the naughty children because it’s painfully obvious they just need love and I think we’re all like that. When we don’t feel loved, are hurt or something is going on inside, we act out. I learned to scoop him up and kiss him and tell him I loved him no matter how much shit he did, and saved the yelling for things that genuinely hurt other people because I believe that’s what Jesus does with me. When the other children would see me they’d lunge at me and also shout “BUHLE!” to let him know I was there. The teachers referred to him as my “nyana” or son and would threaten to tell his mother (me) when he misbehaved. One day an organization came in and did free school pictures for the children to bring home to their parents, and he refused to bring his home because he wanted to give his to me. A few weeks later he whispered in my ear it was his birthday. I looked at his teacher to see if it was an accurate testament and she nodded, “He means next week.” I pretended to not understand, but if there’s one thing I love it’s a birthday surprise and I showed up the next week to his class with a surprise party. All of the children in his room went ballistic and he put his head on his desk, covered it with his hands, and cried. At age 10 he had never had a real birthday before. Buhle will always be my first child.
These were all children with disabilities, born just like me in Africa. Instead of receiving loving families and great services available to them, they are usually viewed as cursed, chained to the back of homes or murdered and I deeply wish that this was an exaggeration.
90% of children in South Africa will never go to kindergarten. 97% will never finish high school. 99.5% will never have a job and will have to resort to either begging or joining a gang and doing dirty work to survive. This is in the most developed country in the entire continent. Expand a bit, and globally 80% of children with disabilities will not make it to their fifth birthday because of misconceptions surrounding disability. Right then and there was when I really came to terms with my disability. I realized that being self-conscious about my disability was a privilege; in most countries being alive like me as a person in the world would be an immediate death sentence.
The children I was working with were the lucky 200 in the entire cape that were allowed to attend school. I often referred to their school as Disneyland because it really is the happiest place on Earth. It’s so easy to be content when you’re in Orlando with ice cream cones the size of your face and unlimited rides, but to be truly joyful when you are seen as the lowest end of society is truly remarkable. That’s real happiness.
I don’t talk about this often, because it freaks some people out, but also I give zero shits so here’s what happened: May 2013 I had just wrapped up five months of research in Africa on what happens to children like me in other countries and was horrified. I’d read stories of people with disabilities being tied with rope to poles in attempts to “burn” the disability out of them. I read stories of albinos being skinned and mass murdered. I read about entire families being ostracised and killed when a child with a disability was born to them. I took in stories of 12 year olds in post soviet countries who had literally been abandoned and chained in cribs since they were born and never held. I found stories of children who were tied to the back posts of huts with the dogs and shared their food. I didn’t know what to do with this information except be incredibly sad and incredibly angry and so grateful that my children and my Buhle was safe.
When I was on a plane ride back to America I had a vision of a little boy being tied up alone in the back of a house, and I felt God ask me “What about the children that aren’t at Temabletu?” and whether or not you believe in a higher power you have to admit that’s a good question. My heart exploded and all of a sudden I didn’t have one child or 200 children - I had the hundreds of millions I had read about. Kind of like a Grinch’s heart growing 3x type of moment, with vomit and a lot of fear and uncertainty what the fuck I was supposed to do.
I booked a research trip to Kenya to wrap my head around what this looked like in another country. I was in conversations with multiple organizations in Nairobi to see their work. I finally had all of the dates confirmed and the only flight left that would get me there in time was leaving in four hours. I grabbed my suitcase, found a ride to the airport, emailed a hostel and prayed to my dear sweet Lord and savior Jesus that they would have received it and would be picking me up at midnight when I arrived in country. They did and they were and I embarked on the most earth shattering week of my entire life.
All of the organizations I met with were incredible. Some were established with boards in the USA and UK, some were run down but had more compassion in their metaphorical pinky than I do in my body so it didn’t even matter. All of a sudden the horror stories I read online weren’t stories but human beings. There was a little girl in a whole body cast because her father had poured gasoline on her and her mother and lit them aflame when her mother informed him she wanted to take her daughter out of hiding and try to get help with a local organization. There was a little boy who was born with a cleft palate had been abandoned and found by some local nuns, but before they found him an animal had gotten to him and was now missing his leg. There was a mom who had brought her daughter who had an arm like mine to the hospital to try to get her a surgery she needed, and her husband had left her because he was afraid they’d get ostracised from their community for creating a child like me. Not knowing I’d be there, when the translator explained what I was trying to start she buried her head into my chest and held her baby while I held her and we all sobbed because the world is such a dark place and when you find someone who gets you that’s all you can do sometimes.
I was back at the Nairobi airport - exhausted and emotional and wanting to return to my wife. I was in line and they asked me to show my yellow fever card. Because of my “calling” to South America, I had been vaccinated for yellow fever but SA doesn’t have any of that nonsense so it hadn’t crossed my mind to bring it. I calmly explained this to the security “No, no, you see…” my still slightly entitled American self started in “South Africa doesn’t have yellow fever, so I don’t need it.” They looked at me like the twat that I was/am and said “Yes, miss, but Kenya does. You can’t enter the country without it.”
I gulped as they told me I’d need to go to the Health Office and be innoculated as stories from fellow aid workers of the same needle being used for shot after shot sans sanitation. “Health Office” was an interesting word choice, seeing as said office had no door and was just a big brick container. Eventually a big man in a v official looking military motioned for me to follow him. He brought me into my mother’s worst nightmare - a completely enclosed brick room with one fluoresent light, a metal door, table and two metal chairs.
“What would you like me to do for you?” he asked, arms crossed. Not MN nice.
“I need a yellow fever card. I have the shot, I just didn’t know to bring my card.”
“Okay, you’ll need to get the shot and wait 11 days for it to be effective,” he responded. Nope.
“I cannot afford that and have less than a month in SA left and needed to finish projects.”
“Miss, if I do this I could lose my job. My family… my children… what’s in it for me?” he asked with the nastiest smile I’d seen.
Here’s the deal: if you’re actually convicted about things, nobody fucks with you. I wasn’t about to get him a ridiculous amount of money and I wasn’t going to compromise my morals so I said “$30. Take it or leave it.”
He took it, and I took my fake yellow fever card and still have it hanging up in my room next to my hospital ID bracelet from the accident when I was hit by two semi trucks, a picture of my Yaya and a bracelet from my friend Adam’s movement about talking about mental illness. I have this display in my room so it’s the first thing I see every morning reminding me that miracles exist, people matter so much, and to go at life as hard as I possibly can with as much passion as I can muster because we only get one shot so we better make it count.
I came home and couldn’t leave my house for over a week. These stories weren’t stories anymore: they were children just as real as my pastor’s children and my little cousins. Actually, they were more real - they were me. All of a sudden I could imagine my life recovering in a body cast because my father thought I was cursed and started me on fire. I could see myself being thrown away. I just laid in bed and cried most days for a while. One day Fran came home and I was laying on my bed in one of my favorite positions: imagine sitting criss-cross applesauce with your knees touching the ground and your feet stuck in the kneepits of your opposite leg and then laying down. I dunno, it’s comfy. Fran came in and asked “Chicken, what are you doing?!” and I responded with big sobs of “I’M CRYING BECAUSE CHILDREN LIKE ME ARE BEING KILLED AND I’M VULNERABLE ABOUT IT!”
“No, love, why are you lying like that though?”
“MY FEET ARE COLD!”
“Babe, do you not want some socks?”
“I’M TOO VULNERABLE FOR SOCKS!”
She said okay, climbed into bed with me and just laid with me while I was too vulnerable for socks and stroked my hair.
To this day we gauge our emotional stability on sockless-ness and she refers to my habits by terms of “plays like a monkey, sleeps like a frog.”
So as I recuperated in my frog position sans socks, Jesus reminded me of our deal - I was gonna love those children like He loves them. Forever. And here’s the deal about love - it’s only fun half of the time. Love puts others first and it puts our own desires last. I knew that if I wanted to impact this issue on a larger scale, I needed to leave my dreamy African life and return to the land of golden arches and mermaid coffee cups and advocate. I believe truly loving someone doesn’t involve asking “What do I want to do?” but it makes decisions for us, even if they’re nasty hard ones.
That’s why I left Africa, too. If I were to stay there it would have been to feed my ego and continue to build a bond with these children while doing nothing about their long term circumstances. And if I were Jesus, I would want me to get off my butt and use my little hand and a half to stop the vast injustice facing these children that I was desperately in love with. So I decided to leave and I started what turned into 2.5 years of hell.
When I prepped to leave Cape Town my hair literally started falling out. In chunks. On my pillow. Every morning. Now if you’ve ever met me, you’d know I have some to spare and its definitely come back in, but my body could not cope with the thought of leaving my perfect children and best friend and entering into the unknown. Had it known that 3 years later Donald Trump would be president I probably would have been bald so maybe this is one of those cases where ignorance is bliss. I sold my car, I gave away my furniture, I gave my notice and I was moving back stateside to fight for the rights of all of these children, most of whom I will never meet. I remember on my last day at the school I had to pull over in the slum multiple times because I was crying so hard. I remembered my Yaya’s favorite song was Jesus loves me - despite not being religious - and she was the funniest person I’ve ever met so I remember repeating the words out loud to myself to remind myself it was going to be fucking okay:
“Jesus loves me this I know; for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong; they are weak but He is strong.” I somehow managed to not kill anyone on that drive and felt my heart detach from my body as I drove away from the most magical place on Earth. I was so sad I could barely drink or eat chicken that night.
The day that Fran dropped me at the airport will forever and always be referred to as “The Great Divorce” and was the worst day of my life. I boarded that air plane, sunk into my seat and cried the 30 hours home wondering what the fuck I had just done.
When I moved back I joined Corepower and Lifetime and any good fitness facility will ask you about your fitness goals and I’ll never forget Brett (the Lifetime coordinator’s face) when I looked him dead in the eyes and said “Let’s face it, I’m doing alright on the physical side of things, but I just moved back from Africa, hate everything and exercise is cheaper than therapy. Also, I’m trying to be a split between Mother Teresa and a Victoria’s Secret model so there’s that.
But after a huge year, an almost marriage, some serious health issues and a baby non-profit I realized that the one thing that had kept me going was yoga which is 1. Cool, because yoga is powerful 2. Fucked up because I was a part of a mega-church in the city and nobody really knew or cared what was going on in my life. I knew that I wanted to provide people with the experiences I had received in my classes and I wanted to provide them with the space, community and encouragement that I believe that Jesus would want me to give them.
That’s why I became a yoga teacher: I tell everyone in every class I teach that I love them and I mean it. I create hard AF classes because I believe in people, I believe in challenging ourselves, and I want people to fail when they’re around me. If we fail alone, we fail alone, but when we fail in community we’re encouraged and we keep on going after it. That’s how we get stronger - that’s what love does. At the beginning of class I warn all of my students that everything is option, breaks are always okay, but encouragement is mandatory. I make them learn the names of their neighbors and when I tell them to encourage their neighbors and they don’t, I’ll stare them down and stop class until they do. We need that, we need each other.
I believe in eating healthy because I’ve seen firsthand what ProYum did not just to my waistline but to my levels of energy and I have more children than anyone on planet Earth and what’s happening to them is not okay so I need a lot of fucking energy.
Basically, what I’ve come to realize is that I have never been good at fitting into bubbles. I swear too much and kiss too many boys to be considered a v good christian child of God, but in many ways the morals and principles I hold closely are pretty conservative. I love exercise and abs are cool, but really don’t give a shit about having the world’s most perfect body in the long run. I mean I never will - I’m disabled AF. Healthy eating is important - But I also think that burgers are blessings and sometimes beer and pizza can be considered soul food.
So what’s my about me? I guess “Some nobody chick who’s doing her best and looks good in lululemon but would rather workout with her friends, help a bunch of children who she’s really in love with and views God as her best friend who is always setting her up for really funny stories.” Or something. It’s a work in progress, but so is the story I suppose.