EXCLUSIVE: Donda’s House alum explores her own mental health journey and what the organization means to her

 “What’s the relationship like between you and your father?” — Rhymefest: 

I will never forget walking into the Ark of St. Sabina (youth community center at St. Sabina Catholic Church) in August 2013, where auditions were held for what was formerly known as Donda’s House, and hearing Rhymefest pose that jarring question. Prior to that, it was a usual sad summer day for me. That is because months earlier, I had come home depressed after being dismissed – due to poor academic performance – from an isolating year at a top-tier Master’s program. Donda’s House arts programming offered a way for me to return to my creative roots and heal.

Growing up, I took advantage of several youth arts programs. I played the piano and clarinet since I was 7. I composed music through a local tuition-free conservatory, participated in my church’s dance ministry, sang alto in the youth choir, played in my high school band, and was drama club president among countless other programs and activities.

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But when the repressed trauma of my childhood manifested into a diagnosis of ADHD, bipolar type II disorder, depression, and anxiety, I began to feel like a complete failure. When I saw a tweet about Donda’s House from Vibe Magazine, I was very excited and thought this would be a great way to get back to my passion for the arts and learn about a free arts program in my South Side Chicago community of Auburn-Gresham.

Going into my audition, I was focused on displaying my warm personality, sense of humor, and making sure I hit the right notes with an acapella rendition of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked the Musical. I didn’t expect Rhymefest, a legendary and Grammy-award winning songwriter, to care about my relationship with my father of all things.

After an intense day of auditions, I prepared myself for the possibility of rejection. I was eager to volunteer and support the organization’s efforts. As fate would have it, I was admitted and the Got Bars program changed the trajectory of my life. By the end of our program in fall 2013, I was homeless. I eventually moved in with my father — the father Rhymefest asked me about. I didn’t have a stellar relationship with my father but through a series of unfortunate events I was forced to reconnect with him for the sake of my sanity and well-being.

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Building a Family

My cohort was the only one to have Donda’s House Executive Director and Co-Founder, Donnie Smith, and Rhymefest co-teach our weekly Creative Writing class. It was convenient for me since I lived five minutes away by car and had lived in the neighborhood since I was 12 years old. In so many ways, building a relationship with Rhymefest and Donnie helped me expand my definition of “family”. Later on, I learned that Rhymefest may have posed that question because he was navigating his own journey with his father and later explored that in a documentary called, “In My Father’s House”.

Our cohort’s showcase would be the first time I did a solo vocal performance as an adult and I was incredibly nervous. This was also one of the organization’s first fundraisers and when I learned that Donnie was managing many things by herself, I offered to initially help schedule tweets that recognized our donors and sponsors. Eventually, I created a role for myself– Executive Assistant and Social Media Manager– and served in this capacity for almost four years.

Evolution

In the past five years, I have provided marketing, branding strategy, event planning, and production services for several artists, brands, organizations, and creatives in Chicago and beyond. Our work with Donda’s House opened doors for me and brought me into rooms I never dreamed I would enter. We facilitated workshops at Social Media Week Chicago and I helped procure a Facebook Stories mini-documentary about us.

I owe my career and a renewed passion for my community and the arts to Donnie and Che “Rhymefest” Smith and the legacy of educators like Dr. Donda West. An opportunity to serve my community in that capacity is invaluable and encouraged me as an emerging creative that my work and voice are needed to ensure that spaces like Art of Culture, Inc. continue to thrive.

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Kelsey Riley is a proud graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana and is a native of the South Side of Chicago. She is a queer visionary and cultural entrepreneur who enjoys using her skills for social impact and empowering Black creatives in Chicago and beyond. You can find on her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram discussing cultural trends, sharing homemade recipes, and enjoying trap yoga. 

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