In April, Bea and David Kelley will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. The couple met as teenagers, growing up just a few blocks from each other — David on the 2800 block of C Street, and Bea on the 2800 block of Kensington Avenue.
“I always tell people that I don’t have friends,” said David. “I only have one friend — and that’s her. Everyone else is an acquaintance.”
The avenue looks different these days, but every Tuesday, the Kelleys volunteer at the Kensington Storefront — a community art-making space across the street from Bea’s childhood home and a few yards from where David first asked Bea out. Back then, the building was occupied by Dobbins, a ladies’ and children’s clothing store where Bea worked after their kids were born.
“I knew from the minute I saw him,” Bea said. “He was the one.”
The couple met at a dance in October 1965 at Mastbaum High School on Frankford Avenue. Bea was 16, and David was 17 years old.
“That was it that night,” David said.
Still, it took David a few weeks to ask Bea out, and when he did, he asked her through a friend — Joey DeMuzio.
“He couldn’t even ask me himself,” said Bea.
Until that point, Bea, who often spotted David and his friends hanging out near Martin’s Deli at Kensington and Somerset, made the effort to move things along.
“I never saw her,” David said. “Then, all of a sudden, she started going back and forth to Martin’s.”
They got engaged soon after, while Bea was still a senior in high school. Instead of a school ring, David gave Bea an engagement ring — so she could show her friends, he said.
Then, in 1968, David was drafted to Vietnam. They sent each other letters while David was deployed, and Bea remembers the local mailman avoiding her when he didn’t have a letter for her from him.
“He knew David was in Vietnam,” she said. “So he knew every week I would look for him and say, ‘You have anything for me today?’”
They were married at Twelfth United Presbyterian Church at Ruth and Somerset Streets on April 19, 1969 — 13 days after David returned from a year-long tour.
Though David returned, some things had tragically changed since he’d left. Joe Lodise, who David had asked to be his best man at their wedding, died in Vietnam. Lodise was one of the 64 men who went to Thomas Alva Edison High School in Kensington who died in that war — the most deaths from any high school in the nation. He was killed on May 1, 1968.
“You know how there are people that shouldn’t be in certain situations?” David asked. “He was a kid that shouldn’t have been in Vietnam.”
David also suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — something David has worked through with a therapist and still experiences occasionally today.
“The week before we got married, we were walking down Kensington Avenue, and a car backfired — I almost jumped behind the car,” David said.
Around the same time, David said the neighborhood transitioned into a place he didn’t recognize. He noticed an influx of drugs on the streets during the late ‘60s and ‘70s — a stark contrast to the neighborhood in which they grew up.
“If I met you and you lived in Mayfair, and you said, ‘Well where you from?’ and I said, ‘Kensington,’ and you said, ‘Oh my god, how do you not get shot?’ — it wasn’t like that,” he said. “You left your doors open back then.”
The Kelleys stayed in the neighborhood for 20 more years before moving to the Northeast with their two children — David and Lisa Kelley — in 1989. But before the Kelleys moved out of Kensington, something happened that would forever change their path.
Their daughter Lisa became close friends with a girl who lived across the street, and during the ‘80s and ‘90s, her friend struggled with an addiction to crack. The two got back in touch during the late-nineties, and in 2000, Lisa and her husband took temporary custody of her friend’s children — ages nine, 10, and 12.
Immediately, Bea and David stepped in and filled the grandparents’ role. The nine- and 12-year old lived with them for two-and-a-half years, and the 10-year-old, Art (or “Artie,” as Lisa calls him), stayed for five. When Art turned 15, he moved in with a family member instead. Lisa later discovered he was using drugs — the beginning of a long battle with addiction.
“Loving Artie made us open our eyes to things that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise,” Lisa said.
In 2017, Lisa started an art program called Tea & Textiles with artist Kathyrn Pannepacker in the building next to Martin’s Deli on Kensington Avenue. Bea and David started volunteering there soon after, and like fate, they were back in the same place where David had first asked Bea out so many years before. When they started coming around, Bea didn’t realize she used to work in the same storefront, Lisa said, — it was David who pointed it out.
Now, the couple brings supplies and snacks to the program every Tuesday, helping with set-up and break-down, and making conversation with participants — many of whom struggle with addiction and other issues related to behavioral health. Some of the volunteers call them “mom and dad,” and according to Lisa, program participants are touched by their presence, too.
“When they find out that they’re my parents, people say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so lucky to have your parents here with you,’” Lisa said. “These are people coming off the street overcome that my parents are here, too.”
Bea said that volunteering at the storefront is their way of “giving back,” but Lisa believes their motivations are more complicated than that. Instead, Lisa thinks they’re involved because of her foster son Art and the therapeutic effect it has on her dad.
“This is the first time I’ve seen my dad hug people,” Lisa said.
While volunteering, David spends a lot of time outside the Storefront making conversation, sometimes saying “too much,” Bea said. He especially connects with the men there, some of whom are vets.
For Bea, the work has a therapeutic effect, too. She just wants people to know that despite their struggles, people who struggle with homelessness and addiction are humans, too.
“People need help — they need somebody that cares about them,” Bea said.
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Editors: Jillian Bauer-Reese, Claire Wolters / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Solmaira Valerio