Denver Kiwanis Club inducts first African-American president
by Annette Espinoza, Denver Post
The Rev. Leon Kelly has spent his most of his life working to keep Denver children from joining gangs, and that work took a historic twist Wednesday, when he was named the first black president of the Kiwanis Club of Denver.
Kelly was inducted Wednesday night as head of the 91-year-old chapter of Kiwanis, an organization devoted to “serving children of the world.”
“Other Kiwanis clubs have had black presidents, but to be named president of Denver’s oldest and largest club is really an honor and privilege,” said Kelly, who will be president for one year. “I’m an optimistic Kiwanian.”
Kelly, 56, a University of Colorado graduate who attended college on an AAU basketball scholarship, saw his life become unglued after he left college and was arrested and convicted for drug dealing.
After being released from prison, Kelly turned his life around. He became an ordained minister at Maranatha Church of God in Christ and later worked as a recreation center supervisor.
In 1988, after a Denver teenager was murdered after being mistaken for a gang member because of a red baseball cap he wore, Kelly started Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, an education and prevention program to keep kids from joining gangs.
Since then, Kelly has attended numerous funerals of kids killed by gang violence and has spoken about youth violence and gang prevention at countless community meetings, prisons, churches and schools.
In 2007, Kelly, was named an Ambassador of Peace and has received many community service awards for his work with youths.
The Kiwanis Club of Denver began in 1917 and today has 44 members. Kelly is the club’s only African-American. The group also counts one Latino and four women, said outgoing Kiwanis Club president Theresa Rapstine.
Nationwide, many fraternal organizations are seeing decreases in memberships. The Denver Kiwanis, too, has logged its losses.
“This club used to be bigger,” Rapstine said, “but this year we gained four new members.”
Kiwanis International, a global not-for-profit organization made up of volunteers who are committed to serving children by providing education, health and resources, is growing, Rapstine said. There are an estimated 600,000 adult and youth members worldwide.
Kelly is a 14-year member of the Kiwanis Club of Denver and has held several positions, including serving on the board of directors.
“We’re very excited, not only because of his notoriety in the community but for what he does for kids,” Rapstine said. “He’s passionate about helping kids at risk, and he’s a great member.”