For my birthday, I want a gravestone.

At the age of 22, I've taken on many challenges throughout my life. I've often been described as competitive, driven, tough, and incredibly strong. I wouldn't have these traits if it wasn't for the way I was raised. I was raised by two of the strongest people I know, who continue to inspire me to be the best version of myself. In a short 22 years of life, I have learned a variety of important lessons. First, it's important to be independent, it's important to be strong both physically and mentally. Your dreams and your goals are supposed to scare you, if they don't, you're not reaching high enough. Second, and my personal favorite, "Don't take sh*t from anyone." Be a leader, not a follower. Stand up for yourself and those who you care about. As my dad used to say, "Don't let anything ripple your pond." And last but not least, while it's important to be strong and independent, it's also okay to ask for help when you need it. It's not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. Recognizing that you need help, and knowing when to ask for is an important part of growing up. That being said, let me tell you why I'm here. 

Exactly a month from my birthday, on May 22nd, I will be walking across the graduation stage having earned two degrees and a certificate in four years - despite the amount of adversity that my family has faced. With my college graduation quickly approaching, the only thing on my mind is how badly I wish my father could be there. How proud and excited I know he would be. I can see the smile on his face now - two degrees and a certificate in four years. Can you hear him bragging? My father had this image of me being a "bad ass lawyer/agent/forensic scientist with a concealed carry" and I'm striving to fit this image. He always supported me no matter what, emotionally, financially, spiritually, you name it. He even sold his beloved Harley Davidson in order to support my education. I had always promised I would replaced it when I was rich and famous, I promised. Unfortunately, this promise has since been modified.

For those of you who don't know, I unexpectedly lost my father on August 13, 2017. I not only lost my father, but my family lost our rock, our biggest supporter, our protector, the man of the house. The year following has been nothing but emotional pain and struggling. My family was forced to mend to a complete learning curve. We had to learn to continue living. My father has, and continues to be, my biggest inspiration. After this unexpected loss, I, the youngest in my family, took the place of the "rock". The resemblance of my personality to my father's is obvious. I'm hard headed, strong, unfiltered, and straight forward. I felt as though I was the best person capable of honoring my father with words, and with this confidence, at the age of 20, I wrote and read my father's eulogy with my chin held high. And now, for my 22nd birthday, I have taken on the challenge once again to make my father proud, by providing him with the perfect gravestone that he deserves.

Since losing my father, my family has struggled to the extreme financially. We may not show it, but times have been hard. My father was the financial man of the house, the money-maker, if you will. My mother, unfortunately, cannot make as much money as my father once had due to her diagnosis of a degenerative eye disease that causes her to slowly lose her vision. As for myself, I do the best I can to make money while being a full time dual-degree student, captain of the cheerleading team, a sorority member, and earning over 300 internship hours at a law firm. We do what we can to be able to meet the needs of our present moment. Therefore, we have been unable to purchase a gravestone for my father's grave. Making visiting him extremely emotional and has left me feeling as though I let him down. 

As you may have seen, my 22nd birthday was yesterday (April 22nd). I assured my close friends and my family that there was nothing I wanted or needed for my birthday and that I would prefer they saved their money. I'm content, attending school, sleeping in a bed, eating a steady college diet of ramen noodles and pop tarts (kidding, not kidding) what more could I need? I don't need anything, is my point. But I do have one wish. In a month, when I graduate, I want to be able to bring my graduation cap to my father. Not only that, but I want to be able to bring him the gravestone he deserves. I presented this idea to my mother, and told her not to worry, because I wanted to be responsible for providing my father and my family with this gift.

So I write this now, to friends, family, and anyone who may plan on visiting my father, to ask for a little help. My time and money has been limited during my college career, but I so badly want to be able to take care of this myself. This gift would not only benefit myself, my mother and brother, but the rest of the Kelly family and the good friends of my father. I'm not asking for pity, or anyone to feel as though they have to contribute, I will make this happen one way or another. However, I'm asking those close to me, and those close to my father, to come together and create something that will benefit us all. 

If you've made it this far into reading, thank you. I appreciate your time, and your consideration on this matter. Once again, I don't want anyone to feel as though they must participate in this fundraiser. I'm simply asking for a birthday present that benefits more than myself.

Gravestones can be very expensive, especially considering the recognition and customization I want my father to receive. My part time college job may not be able to afford this, but my dedication and inspiration guided by my father will get me there.

Any extra funds raised will be donated to research on a cure for Retinitis Pigmentosa. I already have one parent who will not be able to physically see my milestones in life, I need to make sure this degenerative eye disease does not take my mother's ability to watch me succeed and grow. While I may be struggling financially, there are things in this world that are bigger than myself. There is happiness that money cannot bring. And if you are unable to participate, I hope this story has given you a little strength and inspiration to continue to move forward. 

Thank you.
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Organizer

Tia Kelly 
Organizer
West Haven, CT
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