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St. Edward’s Baird builds a life around service

By Erica Rath

NCAA.org

There aren’t enough words to detail all of Kelsey Baird’s involvement. She commits herself fully to community service while maintaining a career and a vibrant personal life. But Baird is no stranger to this balancing act.

In the summer of 2008, before her senior year at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, Baird traveled to Africa with her church ministry. During her month-long visit, the soccer player; her future husband, Kyle; and a group of about 10 others from a youth ministry met families who lived in the slums of Kibera.

Located in the middle of Nairobi, Kenya, Kibera is said to be one of the most impoverished places in the world. At one point, the Kibera slum was estimated to house nearly 1 million people in an area of about one square mile.

When Baird returned to the United States for her final year of school, she wasn’t content with leaving the Kibera children to repeat the cycle of poverty that had landed them in the slums. That year, Baird and Kyle started a non-for-profit organization called the Kibera Penda Project . “Penda” is the Swahili word for love.

For all of her accomplishments and service, Baird was selected as a Heartland Conference representative to the NCAA Division II 40th Anniversary Tribute Team, an honor recognizing former student-athletes whose lives reflect the core values of the Division II experience.

The purpose of the Kibera Penda Project is to provide Kibera’s youth education through funding and scholarships. Baird and her ministry found that almost 100 percent of graduates from Kibera’s primary schools were dropping out by the eighth-grade level because they could not afford to attend high school.

Baird initially enrolled at St. Edward’s to study kinesiology and kept busy throughout her four years in Austin. She also thrived as a student-athlete on the soccer pitch and was involved in many youth ministries and other organizations around campus.

During her time at St. Edward’s, Baird began volunteering her time to a local high school soccer team. When she graduated, those at the school were so impressed with Baird that they offered her a teaching position, something she had not considered taking on until her time in Kenya.

“I initially wanted to be a physical therapist and work with athletes,” Baird explained. “I love getting to work with younger kids who are still growing, learning and developing into the people they will become, and discovering the passions that they have. It’s really great to see.”

Baird’s play on the field was just as impressive as all of the work she has accomplished off it. She was named first-team All-Heartland Conference and earned first-team all-region honors three times. During her senior year she was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District Team and earned honorable mention on the NCAA Division II Women’s Soccer All-America Team.

As a senior, Baird was named a semifinalist for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award and was recognized as the Heartland Conference’s Woman of the Year. She still holds a place in the St. Edwards’ record books as playing in the third-most games in school history.

But it was Baird’s off-field attitude, natural leadership abilities and interest in making a permanent change in the world that have made a lasting impact, said her former coach, Nick Cowell.

“Number one, she was a fantastic athlete. Number two, she was getting great grades,” Cowell said. “But the thing that set her apart from everyone else was the community engagement that she had even as a freshman. We still use her as role model for our current players.”

This spring, Baird began volunteering as an assistant soccer coach at St. Edward’s. She hopes to continue with the team in the fall. It’s something that has come full circle for her. Cowell admires the full dedication Baird commits to every activity she takes on and does it without a need for publicity or approval.

“I couldn’t keep track of all the things she did,” he said. “Since she started the nonprofit, she doesn’t advertise that (she is involved with it); it’s something she does on her own time.”

Baird and her husband continue to visit Kenya about three times a year. She has been able to bring some of her students and current soccer players with her during the summer trips.

“It’s really neat working with kids over here who are privileged and benefited from a family who really cares about their education,” Baird said. “To go visit these kids who are the same age as them, but don’t have those benefits and are so thankful to go to school every day − it’s really cool to get to work for both sides of that and be able to connect the two.”

Baird has brought her soccer skills with her as well. Each summer, the Kibera Penda Project puts on a sports camp for the children involved with the project in Kenya. At the end of the week, they play an annual Kenyan vs. American match, which Baird says the Americans have yet to win.

As the Kibera Penda Project develops and grows, Baird continues to dedicate her time and resources to others.

“She has a very positive personality,” Cowell said. “I can’t say enough good things about her.”