FAIRPLAY — Holly Kays loves writing, the outdoors and building relationships with people.
This year's Outstanding Graduating Senior in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., Kays has been involved in campus publications and has served her community through inner city and trailer park ministries.
According to information provided by Virginia Tech, the Outstanding Graduating Senior is awarded on the basis of grade point average (3.4 or higher on a 4.0 scale), academic achievement, extracurricular activities, leadership positions and contributions of service to the university and/or community.
Kays, 22, is the daughter of Jonathan and Karen Kays of Fairplay. A 2007 Williamsport graduate, Kays will graduate in December from Virginia Tech with a Bachelor of Science in natural resources conservation and a Bachelor of Arts in English with a concentration in creative writing.
Kays said she has wanted to be a writer since she was very young, and studying creative writing in college has been a long-time dream. She credits her parents for her love of nature because her family enjoyed camping and other outdoor activities, and said that she is partricularly interested in the relationship between people and natural resources.
By working in the College of Natural Resources and Environment's public affairs office, Kays was able to relate her studies in creative writing to her studies in natural resources conservation. Her writing has been published in the Virginia Tech Research Magazine, CNRE News, the college's newsletter and the Virgina Tech homepage.
"It's pretty close to what I want to do when I graduate, which is great," said Kays, adding that the technical background has prepared her well for a future career at a natural resources publication.
Kays said that working with the campus group Ambassadors for Christ has given her the opportunity to shift her focus from her grades and her career path to helping others.
During her freshman year, Kays joined Ambassadors for Christ on a spring break trip to inner city Mobile, Ala., and she said the experience changed her view of the inner city.
She said she believes many people create a caricature of inner-city life, and she said she was guilty of that too.
"When I think of the inner city, I think of darkness or danger, or a drug deal on every corner. But (I found) real people there. The acceptance in that community is not what you expect."
Kays said her team worked with Mobile Inner City Church of Christ, a church that she said is "very relationship-based" in the way they serve the community, and her team supported the church in their existing ministries.
Since then, Kays has joined the Ambassadors for Christ team every every year for their trip to Mobile.
"It's been an amazing trip every time," she said, adding that the relationships she formed with the people she served were the most powerful part of the trip.
Before the team returned to Blacksburg, Kays said the minister of the inner city church encouraged them to reach out in her own community.
"(He) challenged our group to look for the inner city in our own backyard," Kays said. "The trailer park turns out to be the 'inner city' of Blacksburg."
Kays said she and the Ambassadors for Christ group spent the rest of her freshman year planning how to reach out to Blacksburg's trailer park community. Blacksburg Church of Christ, the sponor of the campus ministry, agreed to rent a trailer to facilitate outreach. Common Ground began working in a Blacksburg trailer park Kays' sophomore year, providing weekly after-school tutoring for children as well as weekly Bible classes. She eventually assumed more leadership positions after the campus minister left.
"I hope to make a difference in their lives, and through them, meet their families," said Kays.
Kays said she never imagined that she would be involved in leading a ministry to a trailer park community.
"It's not really anywhere I would see myself going," she said. "I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed Common Ground, and how much I've learned from it."
She said that in the future she hopes to use her writing and her experience with Common Ground to address issues that she thinks are important.
"Children have a need to believe that they can be something," Kays said, "The biggest issue is that they don't have God in their lives. When you have God in your life, you have hope, and know that you have a purpose for your life."
This summer Kays will spend a month in Honduras serving at a homeless ministry.