Hene Kelly, 77

"To me, this is all a gift..."

Freedom, freedom is a hard won thing. Every generation’s got to win it again.

Hene, 77, has been advocating for the rights of older adults longer than she herself has been a member of the elder community. As a young woman, she campaigned for presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy while teaching Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama. After teaching for 40 years, she didn’t quite retire – rather, she pivoted to the advocacy work she does today.

She’s been active in “programs that give seniors their voice” in part through the Senior Disability Action Network, citing it as one of the two organizations she really cares about, next to the California Alliance for Retired Americans. The Senior Disability Action Network “mobilizes and educates seniors and people with disabilities to fight for individual rights and social justice. Through individual support and collective action” they “work together to create a city and world in which seniors and people with disabilities can live well and safely.”

“I worked with handicapped students” in the past, she shared. “I’m the chair of the Disabilities Caucus of the Democratic Party. And I feel like senior and disability issues – you have to work together. You cannot have a Master Plan for Aging without people with disabilities. And it should be people with disabilities for people of all ages. You’ve got to have that!”

Insofar as bridging the gap between youth and the aging population, she also works closely with youth groups. “I get young people…My grandchildren…I try and make sure my grandchildren will have social security and Medicare and Medicare for all. When I talk to young people they say ‘there won’t be any’ and that’s why they take jobs as contractors. No, you don’t do that. You have to fight for it!”

“When I got to be 50, I looked at myself in the mirror and I was older than my mother. She didn’t have one white hair on her head (when she passed). I never thought I’d get here. I thought I’d end up like my mother. To me, this is all a gift.”

“And that is something I say all the time at the end of speeches… because people have to know, my parents my grandparents, fought for social security – I’m STILL fighting for social security!
And health care…and you, if I fight for it, and you keep fighting for it, it’s not just going die…If you don’t, your generation won’t have it…”

“We work with young workers,” she shares. “That’s important. You’ve got to look out for every other generation. And there is a love between children and grandparents. It is a different kind of love that’s there for children because you know the mistakes you made with your children and you don’t want to make those mistakes for your grandchildren.”

Hene is an active grandmother, wife, mother, friend, and community member. Anyone who knows her could possibly negate the great energy, intelligence, and warmth she brings to all of her endeavors. She puts extra work into organizations like SDA stating, “this organization understands.”

Beyond the SDA, she’s also been working tirelessly on the following: “Medicare for all. And affordable, adaptable housing,” a concept that hasn’t hit the mainstream yet – but will soon if women like Hene band together. “It has to be that,” she states, “I don’t care if you buy [the house] when you’re 30 – there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to have what you need [as you age]. People who age in a place that’s comfortable for them and that meet their needs and have food and can get health care, are much happier. I really think housing and nutrition are a part of health care…and then there’s the fourth piece: programs for the elder community.”

Getting older is an extremely individual experience with unknowns around every corner. Hene is no exception, but approaches each day with the support of her loving partner and robust network of active contemporaries.

“I was afraid,” she states. “When I got to be 50, I looked at myself in the mirror and I was older than my mother. She didn’t have one white hair on her head (when she passed). I never thought I’d get here. I thought I’d end up like my mother. To me, this is all a gift…”

Humor must have something to do with Hene’s exemplary ‘aging’: “My husband always says about me, ‘she gets older but she doesn’t mature.” And my grandchildren say, “Gramma’s old but she’s not grown up…” So I really, I don’t do that…it’s an odd thing…I never thought about getting older.”

The work she does often makes her recall a song from her youth that she still remembers verbatim. She shared it with Metta Fund:

“Freedom doesn’t come like a bird in the hand
Freedom doesn’t come like the summer rain
Freedom, freedom – it’s a hard-won thing
You have to have to work for it
fight for it, day and night for it
And every generation has to win it again

Pass it on
Pass it on
Pass it on to your children, brother, sister
Freedom freedom is a hard won thing

Every generation’s got to win it again.”

Words to live by. Share them with your close friends and family, neighbors and colleagues.

All photos courtesy of: Sahara Marina Borja