#SWFLstrong: Walking for Kyle: Naples mom honors son's legacy by raising $1 million for heart disease
Our latest #SWFLstrong features Shelly Church and her son Kyle who started raising funds for the Collier County Heart Walk in 1997. Church continued their mission even after his death in 2005, hitting the $1 million mark this year. Jamie Stoddard and Ashley Collins
Editor's note: This is the latest story in the "#SWFLstrong" series, profiling individuals making a positive difference in the community. These articles will be featured on a regular basis in the Collier Citizen, Marco Eagle and The Banner.
Shelly Church grabbed a framed photo of her son dressed up in his Naples High School basketball uniform and smiled.
"He was one of those children that was happy all the time," she said inside her office where dozens of photos, mementos and awards hang on the wall in remembrance of her son, Kyle Fernstrom.
"He was very positive and never complained about his illness. So for me telling his story, that's what he would want. He would want us to celebrate his life," she added.
Kyle died in 2005 at age 18 after living with a congenital heart defect that left him with a hole in his heart. He was a junior at Naples High and manager of the basketball team for the third year in a row since his condition didn't allow him to play.
Early in his life, Kyle underwent countless operations, including open-heart surgery at age 6. He had a large scar on his chest to show for it.
"He was never ashamed of it. I think that's what made him so special, how confident he was," Church said.
The 63-year-old honors her son every year by continuing what they started together.
In 1996, they walked their first Collier County Heart Walk in Naples to raise awareness for the American Heart Association. A year later, they started raising funds for the walk to benefit heart disease research.
They didn't miss a year. However, the 2004 walk would be their last together.
To keep her son's legacy alive — and help others suffering heart disease — Church continued walking and raising funds, hitting the $1 million mark and then some this year after two decades of fundraising.
This year alone she had to raise at least $55,000 for her team to meet that goal.
"It wasn't a goal of mine before. It was just getting out there and doing what I could," she said. "I'm sure Kyle's up there cheering in heaven right now."
Prior to every annual walk, Church sends out a heartfelt letter via email to her donors asking them to contribute.
"People would donate $5, or $20, and of course I've had a $10,000 donation. It just adds up," she said.
Church lives with her husband, Fred, in Naples. She's senior vice president of investments at Raymond James in North Naples and has been with the firm for 23 years.
The mementos hung inside her office make her feel closer to Kyle.
"This all was created because of him, for him and with him," she said.
A bright red basketball uniform with Kyle's name on it is displayed in a glass case. It's the same uniform the Naples High School basketball team wears once a year for a special game to honor him and raise awareness about heart disease.
Several years ago, the team started giving out the Kyle Fernstrom Player with Heart award to one team member. Church and her husband give out a college scholarship to the recipient every year.
This year's basketball team is joining Church to walk in this Saturday's Collier County Heart Walk at Cambier Park. The 5K starts at 9 a.m.
"Though the team certainly doesn't know Kyle, the team continues to walk every single year which makes it very special for me," she said.
She's also walking with about 120 of her friends and family, including her daughter Heather and two grandchildren.
"It's all about paying it forward. This is all about Kyle. It's his story that created this," Church said. "It's because people have seen my passion that they've become passionate about it and that's gone forward and has benefited so many people as a result."
She also raises funds for the Tampa Bay Heart Walk for her Raymond James team.
She not only walks and raises funds but is on the American Heart Association's greater southeast affiliate board. She's also gone on to serve in the national committee.
"By being more involved I really get how badly this money is needed. The biggest part of the money goes to research," she said.
While she keeps busy for the most part, there are times around the heart walk that she gets emotional.
"I'm thinking of him not being here but at the same time I think, 'Wow, look at what we've created, Kyle. Look at what you've done for others,'" she said as her eyes welled up with tears.
By telling her story she hopes to get more people motivated to join the walk.
"And do what they can to be involved," she said.
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To nominate an individual for the "#SWFLstrong" series, contact reporter Ashley Collins at 239-213-6029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.