Kelly McMurry sits on a couch at The Closet with her dog Addie, a 10-year-old toy Aussie. Kelly founded The Closet in 2010 and has helped many teens during that time, and still continues to help them today despite a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis two years ago. (Photo by Rebecca Johnston, Treasure Forever Photography)
By Gaye Bunderson
Since 2010, Kelly McMurry has helped thousands of teens with not only their clothing needs but their emotional and spiritual needs as well. If she never served another young person for the rest of her life, she could still feel that her 55 years have blessed many.
Kelly launched a non-profit she named The Closet in 2010. In a nutshell, the non-profit provides free clothing and shoes to teens in need through its storefront at 10338 W. Fairview Ave. in Boise. The youth are referred by school counselors, juvenile corrections case managers, homeless shelters, and other local agencies. And the young people generally receive a lot more than stylish apparel. They leave with priceless intangibles like a boost in self-confidence and a warm human connection.
Now the founder of The Closet is facing a number of changes to how she operates. Not just how she operates the non-profit, but how she operates herself, her own body. In 2019, Kelly was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. From information provided online by The Mayo Clinic: “Multiple sclerosis is a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). In MS, the immune system attacks the protective sheath that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body.”
Two years ago in January, Kelly experienced what she calls “a severe case of vertigo.” Later, other things began happening to her. “My left foot was dragging near the end of February,” she said.
She was sent to a St. Luke’s balance center, where the therapists worked with her but could not alleviate her symptoms. During one session, she told them she felt “clammy and numb,” which led them to believe she may have been experiencing a heart attack. By this time, she said, “My left leg was only coming with me because it’s attached.”
The official diagnosis of MS came on April 5, 2019.
But for the story to be complete, one must backtrack all the way to 2004, when the vision went out of Kelly’s left eye. She was given an MRI, and the doctors told her they thought she might have MS. In the intervening 15 years from 2004 to 2019, there were other indications that MS was taking over her body. “In those 15 years, there had been signs of MS. But I was running from it – I didn’t want it,” Kelly said.
Lesions on the brain can be an indicator of multiple sclerosis. In 2004, the medical experts tested for lesions on Kelly’s brain and found none; by 2019, they found 22. Roughly one million people in the U.S. live daily with MS, according to information from the National MS Society, and Kelly is now officially one of them.
“It’s not a death sentence,” she said, “but it’s a daily battle for me.”
In fact, the thought of death concerns her less than the diminishing of her quality of life, further loss of body strength, lack of control, and more limitations. “I’m worried about things like walking and speaking,” Kelly said.
She’s depending on natural remedies and is seeing a naturopathic practitioner. A proper diet is essential, which can mean giving up one’s favorites and replacing them with more healthful fare. “I like food; I like to eat…all that’s gone,” said Kelly. “If someone were to ask me, ‘What would you like back that you’ve lost because of MS?’, I would say tomatoes.”
All things ripe, red tomato would delight her, and it takes a great deal of self-discipline to stick with a meal plan specifically designed to help with whatever goal a person has set for themselves. But Kelly isn’t just trying to lose weight or have a brighter complexion. “I’m fighting a battle for my health,” she said. “I deal with a high level of pain, and I had to give up the foods I love.”
She has a lot of support from her staff of volunteers, and from her family.
“My husband Matt is so good to me; he stands by me. We’ve been married 31 years – you take vows to stay with someone in sickness and in health. For some people, those are just words, but he never makes me feel like he doesn’t love me. I know he loves me. If I need anything, he’ll drop everything for me,” Kelly said.
“I put up such a brave face [at The Closet, with volunteers, etc.]; but with Matt, there’s communication, and I let myself cry – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t say to people, ‘Don’t cry.’ Let them cry. It’s okay. I mourn the loss of the Kelly I knew. But I don’t stay there. It’s okay to go to sorrow, but don’t stay there. I wasn’t given 6 months to live, but MS affects my future. I lean into God a little more.
“I know God uses everything for His good. But I still don’t understand my role in that.”
From Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
People tell her that when they look at her, they see the same Kelly they’ve always seen. Since she doesn’t see or feel like ‘the same Kelly,” she asks them how they can see the same Kelly, and they tell her: “It is because your heart hasn’t changed.”
Pondering that, Kelly said, “To know my heart hasn’t changed and that love is still at the center of all things, I’ll take that. … Maybe in that way MS is a gift. It’s caused me to look at life differently. When I go outside, things are more in color – I really see colors brighter. I hear birds chirping more. I pause and notice all that life has to offer and then I think, ‘Aren’t we supposed to do that anyway?’ Maybe illness is a gift – it helps us live life with the perspective of how beautiful life is.”
She maintains an essential role at The Closet but has shifted gears. “I had to allow others to help, and I’ve grown as a leader.” She has 15 to 20 volunteers, some in and out, but with a solid core group. Different volunteers bring different skills. Some are good with heavy lifting, while others are good at sorting. “I’m becoming more sensitive to what people can do. In general, I’m more sensitive to people around me. I don’t assume anything anymore. I give more grace.
“The disease has allowed me to let go – in a good way. I share it with others; the volunteers are being blessed – God has surprised me with the greatest volunteers. It’s been interesting to watch His plan unveiling, getting new volunteers, and watching other people stepping up to a new level.”
One of her assistant volunteers, Kelly Harvey, sent her an encouraging text recently, part of which said: “I have seen you face your health challenge with great courage and determination and truly admire how you’ve made the sacrifices and changes to your daily lifestyle. I know it’s almost unbearable at times, yet you keep moving forward. I have seen you adapt both at home and at The Closet and believe you’ve grown as a leader. … I absolutely love being part of what God is doing, and grateful for the role you’ve allowed me to have.”
Kelly herself has a lot to say about love. “I’ve always felt loved all my life.”
She was the youngest of five children and the only girl. She wasn’t born until a full nine years after her youngest brother; in other words, she was something of an accident, but she always felt love in her life. “I’m so fiercely loved,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I feel love for the young people who come to The Closet who’ve never had love.
“Love, friendship, family. I feel it greater than ever.”
She worries a lot about losing her speech, because “I want to talk all my days of God’s goodness… I ask Him for my voice to remain so I can always tell of His goodness.”