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Published: Friday, January 19, 2018 @ 6:00 AM
— Based on what she’s done in this life, Kelley Gunter guesses she probably barked and walked on all fours in the last one.
“I must have been a dog in a past life because I am so loyal,” the Troy resident joked during our meeting at Ghostlight Coffee in Dayton’s South Park neighborhood.
In flawless makeup and straightened hair, Kelley sat across from me with a big mug of hot chocolate.
She’d later email me the hot chocolate recipe her spunky grandmother used to make.
Striking at 5-feet, 9-inches tall, Kelley and her visual beauty are hard to miss.
But her face and body were frequent topics of conversation when she weighed 391 pounds, too.
“People would constantly say to me, ‘Kelley, it is a shame; you have such a pretty face’,” Kelley said. “My entire existence was a shame because I was packed into a body that was unacceptable (to them). People think that is a compliment, but it is so not a compliment.”
‘YOU HAVE SUCH A PRETTY FACE ‘
Kelley outlines the emotional journey that took her through bariatric surgery, loose skin removal, losing almost everything, and finally recognizing true beauty in her new self-published book, “You Have Such a Pretty Face.”
Even after her weight loss surgery 16 years ago and losing and keeping off 243 pounds, Kelley said she felt like true happiness eluded her.
“I always looked to feel pretty for someone else,” she told me. “My whole life I was fighting for people who didn’t have a voice. I didn’t realize in all of it, I was losing my own voice because I couldn’t fight for myself.”
It took a fast crash and a hard fall for her to achieve that self-awareness.
Kelley, a Pleasant Hill native, said she was an achiever even before her days as a cheerleader and member of the Newton High School homecoming court.
Kelley, a prom princess, continued achieving in college.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Wright State University and a master’s in clinical, counseling and applied psychology from the University of Dayton.
She founded and led Isaiah’s Place, a Christian-based foster care agency launched in 2003 and based at 1100 Wayne St. in Troy.
She lived in a four bedroom house last valued at $340,600 by the Miami County Auditor’s Office.
Though called “Tree Truck Legs” and “Richter” in high school by bullies who said she shook the Earth when she jumped, Kelley said she actually started packing on the weight during her college days.
Miserable and labeled morbidly obese, she had weight loss surgery in August 2002 at age 37.
Life wasn’t a fairy tale.
After the skin surgeries that removed 11 pounds of skin from her stomach alone, Kelley said she continued to hide and suppress truth about her traumatic childhood. Self-destruction was always around the corner.
In November of 2016, Kelley was forced to resign from Isaiah’s Place on the heels of a public scandal involving what authorities said was more than $100,000 in missing funds. Her nice big house is now in foreclosure, according to Miami County court records.
>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Foster care agency funds may have been used for gambling, vacations
Kelley and her 22-year-old son, Alec, now live with their three rottweilers in a two-bedroom home she had once rented out.
“I lost everything and everyone except my son,” she told me.
It was a hard pill, but Kelley says it is one she had to shallow.
“God had to break me. I would not have broke if people were cushioning my fall,” she told me. “I didn’t take care of what God blessed me with, which is why God took it away. I was just out of control. You run from yourself, but it is not a race you can win.”
Kelley E. Gunter, 53, and Matthew C. Gunter, 57, were formally charged with aggravated theft of at least $150,000 but less than $750,000 between Jan. 1, 2014, and Nov. 9, 2016.
The brother and sister are suspected of stealing more than $500,000 from Isaiah’s Place.
The Christian-based agency works with foster agencies in 15 counties.
LIARS, WOMANIZERS AND THE SHOPPER
What followed was intense treatment in Sedona, Ariz., where Kelley says she addressed the sexual abuse she faced between ages 5 and 12 and had buried deep in her soul.
Through therapy, she said she learned that ignored pain contributed to a life of poor decision-making (she says she takes responsibility for the financial mismanagement of Isaiah’s Place) and bad relationships.
“I was just destroying myself, really. I never had a grasp of the destructive factors in my life. If I wasn’t dating the wrong man, I was dating a worse man,” she said.
There were liars, womanizers and a long line of general users, Kelley says. When she wasn’t focused on them, she says she was shopping.
In her book, she writes:
“I shopped more than anyone should ever shop. I couldn’t overeat anymore, but I could shop. It felt good to be able to buy anything I wanted.... I would buy more than I needed and then not even wear half of it. I would charge my credit cards until the were maxed and then stress out over how I was going to pay them off. I would shop for gifts for people who didn’t deserve gifts from me. I would give and give and give. I suppose I thought that if I gave enough, those people would love me. I never for one second thought that just giving myself was plenty.”
TIME IN THE LIGHT
Kelley said she didn’t tell anyone — not even her best friend — about the sexual abuse. After coming forward, she’s heard from others with similar stories.
“It’s a beautiful thing to stand in the light of the truth,” she said. “Why did I have to carry shame?”
Kelley says she now recognizes that even her social work efforts were a mask of sorts.
“I am that much healthier for allowing that out of my soul. My soul was just screaming, ‘I want to be heard’,” she said. “I knew kids and I knew hurting kids. It meant the world to me. I knew how they felt, and I knew how to work for those kids.”
Kelley has always had a passion for writing, and has in the past penned words published by the Troy Daily News and the Dayton Daily News, where she was a freelance writer.
Now, Kelley says she hopes to help people by telling her stories.
“I was willing to do all the work I needed to do to come out a better me,” she said. “Every one of us is so much more than what’s been done to us.”
She is penning her second book, “The Homecoming Queen of Crazy Town,” and plans to write “Any Color as Long as it is Red,” a book based on the outlandish and wise sayings her grandmother made up.
Before her life changed forever 15 months ago, Kelley said she was loyal to everyone but herself.
“I feel very beautiful now,” she said. “What I know is who I am created to be, and no one else can define that for me.”