Kelly Fleming's career path has taken her from retail and writing to real estate and fundraising. She has worked in marketing and communications and she has volunteered with missions creating shelter and housing in impoverished and storm-ravaged areas.
Each skill she has honed has helped prepare her for her new post as executive director at Habitat for Humanity of Central Arkansas, which she assumed in March, after years of raising money and awareness for organizations such as the Arkansas Arts Center, the Arkansas Repertory Theater and the Heifer Foundation.
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit that partners with people in need to build houses using volunteer labor to keep construction costs low. There are income and residency requirements associated with the program, and those who benefit make low mortgage payments and are expected to invest sweat equity into building their houses.
"Family and the houses that hold them have always been incredibly important to me. It is the place I feel safest, most content," Fleming says. "I get really attached to houses. One of my creative outlets is making a house a home, and it is part of what makes my move to Habitat make sense. I value family and home above all else, and I understand the security, the self-reliance, the stability that owning a home can bring."
Habitat has almost completed a neighborhood, Porter Cove in North Little Rock, including nine houses on a cul de sac where an elementary school used to be.
"We built all the infrastructure -- the street, the curbs, the utilities," Fleming says. "The sidewalks are great. There's a community center right there with a great playground behind it. There are three churches within walking distance. I can just imagine these kids on their bikes and these single moms outside talking about, you know, 'We're in this together.'"
“One reason Habitat hired me, I think, is because of the fundraising experience, and they need that. But one thing I’ve realized there is there is no better way to serve an organization you care about than by raising money for it.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
Fleming's first day at Habitat was March 23, right at the beginning of local response to the covid-19 pandemic.
"That was a Monday. My first Friday, the decision was made to close both of our ReStores, so I had to lay off 14 people. My second Friday, I had to furlough everyone else, including myself, to differing degrees," Fleming says. "We had applied for and got the PPP money and so we were able to bring some people back and re-open the stores in mid-May."
While her friends were at home learning to crochet and bake bread during quarantine, Fleming was doing all she could to get up to speed and keep Habitat's wheels turning.
Eddie Martin, chairman of the Habitat for Humanity of Central Arkansas board when Fleming was hired, says she has done a fantastic job.
"When Kelly applied it made a lot of sense to me because she has a lot of experience, not only in the community, but also in the nonprofit world," Martin says. "She's got a great attitude, very positive, practical and business-minded also, and man, she has really stepped in there and exceeded our expectations as far as what she's been able to accomplish under extremely difficult circumstances. She has come in here and triaged and I think we're in a good position, a much stronger position since she's been here and I couldn't be more proud of her."
Fleming was born in Ruston, La., and when she was young her father, Curt Kinard, was a high school principal. The family lived across the street from the school and Fleming and her sister, Kris Prince of Tiki Island, Texas, sometimes got cookies from the ladies working in the cafeteria.
Kinard completed a Ph.D. at Louisiana State University, and the family moved from Ruston to Natchitoches, La., were he became a professor at Northwestern State University.
"It was just the sweetest place to grow up. There was a small university there so it had some offerings that another town that size might not otherwise have," she says. "We skied on Cane River and I remember going crawfishing in the woods. My parents had good couple friends and they were always getting together and the kids were doing bike rides and summer vacations. I was very blessed."
Fleming was only 16 when her mother, Dorothy Scarborough Kinard, a beloved elementary school teacher and principal, died of a cerebral aneurysm after collapsing on the floor during a golf tournament dance at the Natchitoches Country Club.
"She went by ambulance to Shreveport, the nearest larger city, and had surgery but she never really regained consciousness," Fleming says. "There was an outpouring of love and support from Natchitoches like they would give status reports on my mom's condition on the little radio station."
About a month after her mother died, Fleming won the title of Miss Merry Christmas in the 1977 Junior Miss Pageant. Her sister was named Miss Merry Christmas 1978.
"That had never been done before, back-to-back sisters," Fleming says. "We joked that it was our little dynasty there for a while. The photograph of my dad's smile after my sister won -- he was just beaming -- is one of my favorite photos ever."
Mary Wynn of Austin, Texas, met Fleming when they were just 8 years old.
"I remember she came up to me and just real kind of casual like, 'Hey, you want to ride bikes sometime?' And I was like, 'Sure,'" Wynn says. "We were just pals after that. It's really the kind of person she is. She's very observant of people and reaches out to people with just kind of a casual connecting when they need support and that's what she did for me, which really helped me transition and feel comfortable."
Wynn and Fleming had sleepovers and rode bikes around their neighborhood, and they have stayed in touch over the years, encouraging each other through life and career changes.
Wynn recalls countless people coming forward after Fleming's mother died to share stories about Kinard's kindness and generosity toward them. She sees similarities between Fleming and her mother -- and between those two and Fleming's adult daughter, Drew.
"Drew really has that philanthropy bug, that caring for people and that sense of humor and it's beautiful," Wynn says.
Drew Ford recently moved back to Little Rock after completing her master's degree at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, Miss., and working for a while in Nashville, Tenn.
"She didn't have a choice but to be a theater geek because she literally grew up in the box office at the Rep," Fleming says. "She would do her homework in the box office while I was upstairs working and I would drag her down there with me all the time."
The year her daughter graduated from high school, Fleming bought a "Tony Award Trip" package at the Rep's Saints and Sinners Ball and they went to New York to see the awards.
"The night before the awards we went to see "Billy Elliott" and that won best musical," Fleming says. "I remember one time we went up to Fayetteville to see a show and we were going up and back on the same night and it was a school night. We got a coffee across the street before we headed home, and sang Christmas carols the whole way home just trying to stay awake."
A few years ago they saw "Hamilton" together on the last night Lin-Manuel Miranda performed.
"I was a single mom for a long time and she was my sidekick," Fleming says of her daughter.
Fleming's father remarried after her mother's death. Her father and stepmother, Dana Prince Kinard, live in Baton Rouge.
"Over the years, she has been a cheerleader and a prodder, whether it's telling me I have to buy the vintage velvet coat because it's 'fabulous!' or saying 'if I were in your shoes right now I might just go someplace like Santa Fe for a month. You should think about it,'" says Fleming of her stepmother.
After her father retired from Northwestern, he and his wife started a clothing business. Their sales territory included Gulf Shores, Ala., which they fell in love with and decided to call home for a year.
Fleming's father insisted she go to LSU for her undergraduate degree, certain she would love it as much as he did.
"It was too big for me and I really didn't like it," she says.
Family friends suggested they all go to a Razorbacks football game one weekend, though, and she instantly fell in love with the University of Arkansas campus and with Fayetteville. She graduated from there with a degree in English in 1981.
MILLION DOLLAR CLUB
Fleming couldn't resist going down to Gulf Shores to check out her father and stepmother's place and she stuck around for a while, working in the landmark Lighthouse Motel. From there she spent a year as a dorm director at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where her sister was a student, and also took some prerequisite courses in economics and accounting. Those courses prepared her for a Master of Business Administration program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which she completed in 1986, just before moving to Little Rock.
Fleming was the manager of Little Rock's first Victoria's Secret for a few months, worked as a writer and editor at Arkansas Business and several of its publications, and then became a Realtor.
"I am a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Club. It takes five years to do that. At that point, I was single. I didn't like being on commission only and this was pre-DocuSign and cellphones and so I would literally have to pluck Drew out of the bathtub or out of bed to go get something signed or go unlock a house. I knew it wasn't working for me, even though I was successful at it," Fleming says.
In celebration of her 40th birthday, she rented a little house in Santa Fe, N.M., for a month and took a writing class at Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch.
It was after that that she got the job as director of marketing at the Rep. Four years later, she went to work as communications manager and then associate director of communications at the Heifer Foundation, the giving arm for Heifer International.
Fleming says she knew when she moved to Little Rock there were two nonprofits she knew she wanted to work for someday -- the Rep and Heifer.
"It took me 14 years, but I finally got to check a box," she says.
Fleming returned to the Rep in 2007 as director of development and marketing, and after three years decided to take a break and re-evaluate her goals. She enrolled in the Clinton School of Public Service.
"I never thought I would graduate from the Clinton School and do fundraising, which is what I was doing before. I thought the Clinton School would take me in a different direction," she says, adding that her experience there helped her be a better fundraiser and nonprofit staff member. "I loved that two years. I loved that time, and going to class with some interesting people from all backgrounds and walks of life."
Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School, enjoyed having her in the school.
"I don't think she shifted her interest, but I think it's fair to say she broadened it," Rutherford says. "She's professionally very talented. Her humility is a great strength. She doesn't pat herself on the back. She is very good about putting others out front, but she's very good at what she does. She's experienced. She's professional. And she's fun."
Through the Clinton School, Fleming worked on a project focusing on the needs of foster children who were aging out of the system, and she considered concerns including who teaches children who are wards of the state to drive so they can pass examinations and get driver's licenses. She also piloted a writing program for students through Just Communities about diversity and inclusion.
During her second year at the Clinton School, she went to Tuscany to work with Scott McGehee, uncle of Little Rock chef Scott McGehee, in a performing arts school. She helped the school with strategic planning for a Crisis Arts festival, which brought in artists whose work spoke to a crisis of some sort -- political, personal or economic.
"It was quite the summer. You know, when you stay someplace long enough, you start to really get a sense of what it feels like to live there, not visit there? I loved checking out the different grocery stores and things," she says.
Fleming's husband, Shannon, is chief strategy officer for a company that owns nursing homes now, but he used to be a fundraiser, too.
He worked for Philander Smith College when they met in 2009 at an event dedicated to Philander alumni and donors at the Rep, while Fleming was director of development and marketing.
"We had to go out on stage together and I welcomed everyone on behalf of the Rep and then I said, 'Now I'll turn it over to Dr. Fleming with Philander," she says.
She joined the Rotary Club shortly after that, and her introduction to the members said she loves reading, theater and happy hour. Shannon Fleming, heeding those words, called later to ask her to join him at happy hour.
They were married five years ago in the little chapel on the Philander Smith campus.
Scott Carter, public affairs and creative economy adviser for the city of Little Rock and staff liaison to the city's Arts and Cultures Commission, was at their wedding and remembers how the couple went around the room and shared something meaningful about each guest.
"We all kind of felt like we knew each other even though many of us we were from different facets of the lives. That's just who she is," Carter says. "She certainly is an enthusiastic person who is really focused on building connections and I guess I sort of used that bad pun intentionally given her new position."
Fleming, who just turned 60, is looking forward to doing all she can to help people through Habitat.
"One reason Habitat hired me, I think, is because of the fundraising experience, and they need that," she says. "But one thing I've realized there is there is no better way to serve an organization you care about than by raising money for it."
Fleming thinks the Habitat position might be her last before retirement, though that milestone is still years away. She's not sure what she will do when she's done.
"We've joked about opening a vintage motel down in Gulf Shores," Fleming says. "You know how throwbacks to the old motels are kind of coming back? With a free happy hour every afternoon and a bloody Mary bar in the morning for our guests. It is fun to think about."