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From homeless teenager to mentor: Airman aims to pay it forward

By Airman 1st Class Alexandra Singer | 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | March 15, 2018

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. —

Kicked out of her home with no one to turn to and nowhere to find warmth but vacant cars on the side streets of Philadelphia, then 15-year-old Kennesha Key longed for nothing more than a chance.

Although unable to afford basic school supplies, much less a desk to prop her homework on nor a reading light to illuminate it, Key found solace in school, most notably in her Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps course.

The course turned out to provide more than an escape from her reality; the people she met through it gave her the chance she needed.

“It made me feel like I was in a family,” said Key. “They weren’t judgmental when they found out I was homeless, and reminded me that everyone goes through tough times. The bond they gave me made me feel like I had a really good support team.”

A Philadelphia transplant, having moved up and down the East Coast, Key finally felt at home with her ROTC group, so much so that she valued their advice, which lead her to meet the person that would change her life forever.

“She’s probably the most important females I’ve met in my whole life,” said now Tech. Sgt. Key of her U.S. Air Force recruiter, “I don’t know where I would be without my recruiter. When I look at where I started, all these things and all these great people that I’ve met in the military, I would’ve never met them if it wasn’t for her.”

Key, who is now stationed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis as a fleet management and analysis noncommissioned officer in charge with the 441st Vehicle Support Chain Operations Squadron, said that to this day, her recruiter does everything from the heart. She never once doubted Key and believed in her when nobody else did. She didn’t treat her as just another recruit, she had compassion and love that pushed Key to become a stronger person.

Her recruiter said she saw a young person looking to change their life in the best possible way, which most Air Force applicants are looking to do; however, Key’s resilience early on made her different from most recruits.

“What makes Kennesha unique is her level of motivation and determination to make this possible despite her circumstances at that time,” said Senior Master Sgt. Nicole Snowden, Key’s former recruiter. “Up until that point, I hadn't met with anyone with that amount of perseverance.”  

Key’s persistence didn’t end with joining the military and bettering her own life.

In her role as President of the Langley African American Heritage Council, she set up community outreach programs acting as a mentor just as her recruiter was to her. Key and the council guide and tutor students from high-risk areas of Hampton Roads and at the Norfolk Juvenile Detention Center. Her hope is to reach at-risk children early on so they too can see they have opportunity and someone that believes in them.

“A lot of students go to school to be warm or just to get away from their situations at home,” said Key. “They give up on themselves because they feel like no one believes in them. I feel like I can relate because I’ve been there. I always tell them the story of my recruiter and how she was the first person in a long time that wasn’t blood that believed in me. I try to give those kids the same thing.”

While moving forward in her life, Key said she will never forget how she got where she is, and who believed in her enough to motivate her to get to this point. She recognizes that her recruiter opened doors that Key never thought she could go through, which is why Key still stays in touch with Snowden to this day.

“I've been blessed with the opportunity to watch Tech. Sgt. Key grow into an NCO who exudes leadership by example,” said Snowden. “She could have very well made excuses for herself, but instead she's taken every opportunity to further challenge herself.  She consistently steps outside her comfort zone and isn't afraid to share her journey with those around her. She inspires me.”

With plans to become an U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant, Key hopes her story encourages any other young Airmen find their way, and reach for their goals.

“Find someone that is not like you. Don’t always find someone who has the same struggles or mentality,” said Key. “Find that female mentor and connect yourself to her, it’s okay to open up. Be honest, be transparent, and believe in yourself.”

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