Our Stories

Ruth Kelly1 Resized
Ruth Kelly2 Resized

An Ally For Us All

For a dynamic ally, Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s Encore movement needs to look no further than just around the corner and down the road to Grand Rapids City Hall. 

That’s where you’ll find Second Ward City Commissioner Ruth Kelly working tirelessly on behalf of issues that especially affect and celebrate America’s older population, and specifically, how they impact thoughtful and progressive urban planning. 

Ruth, a Grand Rapids native who graduated from Central Christian High School in 1971, was exposed at an early age by her parents to initiatives that worked to provide inclusion, diversity and equity. As the daughter of John and Kathryn Strayer, “politics ran in the family,” and after enjoying dinner together with her parents and two brothers and a sister, they’d watch the news together. 

“I do remember, ‘Goodnight, David…Goodnight Chet…and Goodnight from Texaco!’” she says with a laugh. “We always watched the evening news.” 

Her world view came to empathize with the plight of minorities and the disadvantaged, and she developed a visceral connection when her family sponsored Vietnam refugees who re-settled in West Michigan decades ago. 

She received her B.A. in political science from Aquinas College and a master’s degree in educational technology from Grand Valley State University, then worked as a community organizer before embarking on a teaching career that would last some 20 years. 

She was the first recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Leadership Scholarship because of her work with neighborhood and business associations, a first love. Growing in that capacity, she has served on numerous boards and committees that advanced everything from the Dyer-Ives Foundation to initiatives that address housing inequities. 

Her first foray into politics was to assist then-neighbor Mary Alice Williams’ run for city commissioner against an incumbent more than 30 years ago, even though Williams entered the race too late to officially make the ballot. “I didn’t know much about the political process,” Ruth recalls, “but I knew how to organize, whether it was a book club or a babysitting co-op or a softball team. So I got ahold of every school and church directory I could find and we called everyone, and I was stunned at what just one person could do.” 

The results of her efforts: Williams won as a write-in. 

As a city commissioner herself since 2010, Ruth has served in a variety of capacities, all of which embrace a model bowing to citizen participation. Arguably, Ruth’s becoming best known for her work to create what Encore and AARP and others deem “age-friendly communities” designed to attract and retain more residents, provide business opportunities to serve older populations, and design and build infrastructures that are fair and friendly to all. 

Toward that end, Ruth and those in her corner envision a Grand Rapids and environs where thoughtful consideration is given to the development of transportation, housing, health services, outdoor spaces and buildings and more. 

A seemingly small but actually important example: The traffic roundabouts being installed at select intersections. Ruth points out that people gripe about them until they come to understand that they allow only 16 potential “conflict points” when you consider vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian liabilities. A traditional intersection, meanwhile, offers as many as 56 such conflict points. Additionally, a roundabout negates the need for electronic signals, and results in fewer accidents and up to 50 percent better traffic flow thanks to its generation of slower speeds. And with a little attention to landscaping, they actually add to a city’s aesthetics. 

Ruth takes the same approach to housing: Consider the options before you keep doing the same thing for the sake of tradition. And toward that end, she believes the best tact is to “ask people what they want.” 

This coming fall alone (2017), Ruth will help host upwards of two dozen public sessions designed to air senior advocacy issues. To learn more, visit: http://grcity.us/design-and-de...

Taking place mostly in churches and schools, Ruth says “People are eager to talk about what they want…and we haven’t done enough listening yet.” 

Ruth is working closely with Virginia Smith – formerly with the Area Agency on Aging and now with the City’s planning department -- to wade through a sea of research and data to facilitate those autumnal sessions. “It’s amazing what she’s learned,” Kelly says of Smith’s work. “It’s really transformative.” 

Ruth was also recruited to serve as emcee and thought provoker during a visit planned for September 14-15 by author Elizabeth White, whose book “55, Unemployed and Faking Normal” is the backdrop for a pair of events culminating in  a community conference at Calvin College this coming Friday (reservations are filled). 

Ruth believes that no small amount of a city’s problems can be traced to how too many of us are tied to our motor vehicles. “Get out and walk,” she suggests, “and get a sense again of your childhood. If we’re not moving, we’re going to suffer through old age. We need to be active and engaged…to live healthy Encore lives.”

Next Previous