Meredith Kelly (nee Hay), who devoted the last decade her life to sending care packages overseas that brightened the lives of U.S. servicemen and women, died May 15 after a battle amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 61 years old.
A resident of Lyons who grew up in Riverside, Kelly started Operation Stars and Stripes in 2003. Two of her nephews were Marines deployed in Iraq at the time, and Kelly’s care packages helped make their difficult deployments a little easier.
Over time, Kelly and her volunteers sent more than 10,000 care packages containing everything from toiletries and canned goods to Christmas trees and video game systems to soldiers, sailors and Marines deployed in such places as Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Her efforts captured the notice of Chicago broadcaster Harry Porterfield, who profiled Kelly in 2009 on his “People You Should Know” segment on ABC-TV news. She was also honored in 2010 by her alma mater, Riverside-Brookfield High School, which awarded Kelly an Alumni Achievement Medal.
“I am very honored, very humbled,” Kelly told the Landmark on October 2010 upon being selected for the award. “This award isn’t about me. It’s about all the people, all our volunteers who have worked very, very hard.”
But Operation Stars and Stripes was Kelly’s baby from start to finish. At first, the organization operated out of a warehouse space donated by General Motors, where her husband, John, worked.
In 2005, Kelly was forced to move the operation into her home in Lyons.
“We had boxes everywhere,” Kelly remembered, “in the basement, garage, breezeway, living room and a bedroom.”
In 2008, the village of Lyons offered to let Kelly use a former recreation hall as a warehouse for Operation Stars and Stripes. Lyons honored the organization in 2010 by dedicating its vehicle stickers to Operation Stars and Stripes.
The organization continued to perform its mission until Kelly’s illness forced her to stop at the end of 2010.
Kelly was raised in Riverside and was a 1968 graduate of Riverside-Brookfield High School. Her father, Gordon Hay, was a B-17 bomber pilot during World War II, flying missions over Europe.
“I have him to thank for all my patriotism and to be grateful for what we have in the United States,” Kelly said in a 2010 interview with the Landmark. “My father always flew the American flag.”
After graduating from RBHS, Kelly attended Triton College and became a licensed practical nurse, working first a Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago before moving to Loyola University Medical Center, where she worked in pediatrics and helped set up the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. She was also the longtime school nurse at RBHS.
She was the wife of John Kelly; the stepmother of Jenny Orosco and John Kelly III; the step-grandmother of John IV, Jake, Devin, Jordan, Erin and Laura; the daughter of Colleen (nee Rooney) and the late Gordon Hay; the sister of Pamela Schmaling and Lauren (Brian) Cody; the aunt of Matthew Schmaling, Katie Schmaling, Brian Schmaling, Mike Meksto, Colleen Cody, Grace Cody, Thomas Kapla, Robert Kapla, Donald Kapla, Eric Kelly, Brian Kelly, Robert Kelly and Victoria Dickson; the sister-in-law of Robert (Dale) Kelly, Patrick (the late Debra) Kelly, Susan (James) Wiedemann, Kathryn (Richard) Husarik and Marian (the late Andrew) Sabol; and the friend of Trudy Franson and Lisa Chioda.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, May 19 at 10:30 at the Riverside United Methodist Church, 82 Woodside Road, in Riverside. Interment is private.
Memorial donations are appreciated to the Les Turner ALS Foundation, 900 N. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, Ill. 60611.