NOT THE USUAL SUSPECT…
The first time I met her she had a small black kitten in her arms. She was standing in the foyer of the downtown Safeway, and the kitten had just been plucked from a dumpster outside, rescued from an uncertain fate. When I offered my help she looked at me with a smile and told me she would make sure the kitten made it to the SPCA safely – and while she was a stranger, I trusted her immediately and knew she would, because when you meet Kelli Stewart you know she is a woman of her word.
When I interviewed her later about that kitten rescue I was lamenting about the state of the “usual suspects” – those people in the community who are terrific but who seem to always be the ones involved in everything, the same faces at every corner. I wondered where the new faces were, the ones who brought something new and fresh to the community. And that is when Kelli suggested I should write about people who were “not the usual suspect”, people who are new to Fort McMurray and who have made it home. As soon as she said it I knew she was right, and it seems fitting she is the first to be featured in this column as someone who is new and fresh – and definitely not the usual suspect.
You can’t miss her when you see her – the flaming red hair, the tattoos, and the megawatt smile that simply does not quit. She speaks with passion and intensity – about dance, and her position at the MacDonald Island Dance Academy, about children and the importance of empathy, about a colourful history that has left her with “full pockets” to help those who need assistance – and about her new community in Fort McMurray, a place where she has only been for eight months but upon which she has already had an impact.
That impact includes winning “Dancing with the Stars Wood Buffalo” with her partner Scott, a dance competition designed as a fundraiser for the Fort McMurray SPCA. It combined three of Kelli’s passions: animals, community, and dance. It was a splash landing in a place where she was not well known; but those who watched her in person or online will likely never forget her hair, her dancing – or her general exuberance and joy. As she says, dance is the language she is most fluent in, but her real language seems to be living life with passion.
She came to us from Vancouver, with a stop in Toronto before arriving here. She came because her parents emphasized never turning down an opportunity, and staying open to new possibilities. She came to teach dance, and to write another chapter in the book of her life. She came to push herself out of her comfort zone, to leave the cities she knew in favour of one she didn’t. And why has she stayed? “Because Fort McMurray is magic,” she says with that stunning smile.
In her high school yearbook she quoted a line from the Disney movie Mulan, a line that echoed her belief in marching to the beat of her own drum: “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and precious of all.” That line sums up the beautiful, talented, passionate, and inspiring Kelli Stewart, who grew up bullied because she was different, and who says dance saved her life – but it also sums up her new community, a place that blooms in adversity, and has the ability to attract amazing people like Kelli to it. Kelli is definitely not the usual suspect, and maybe that is why she is the perfect fit for a community that is not your usual place.