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Life Balance

Saint Leo Alumna, a Hometown Hero, Makes a Difference Every Day

You won’t find many others out there like Pam Kitchen, winner of the 2019 “Hometown Hero” award. Read the inspiring story of this 1980 Saint Leo alumna who has overcome cancer and Hurricane Michael as she continues to positively impact young girls through gymnastics.

A photo showing Pam Kitchen, a 1980 Saint Leo alumna, accepting the 'Hometown Hero' award and $25,000 check from Quicken Loans and Rocket Mortgage in October 2019 for the re-grand opening of her gym in Panama City, Fla.

Pam Kitchen is a prime example of someone who never lets adversity get in her way. The longtime gymnastics coach beat cancer and the tremendous destruction of a hurricane yet still maintains the utmost of positive attitudes.

The 62-year-old originally hails from Enfield, Conn. and flocked to Florida as a youngster. Kitchen has two sons – Nick who is 39 and Matt who is 33. She has two granddaughters – four-year-old Emma and two-year-old Karlee Star who is named after her. She also has five dogs.

When Kitchen became a grandmother a few years ago, she immediately knew she didn’t want to be called “grandma” or “granny.”

“They call me GramPam” she says with a laugh.

Arriving at Saint Leo College

Kitchen (whose maiden name is Pamella Stasieczko) chose to attend Saint Leo College, the university’s previous name, so she could compete in gymnastics. She enrolled as a freshman in 1975. She talks about how she made this decision.

“Saint Leo hosted a summer camp back in the day,” she says. “Mark Rabinof was the gymnastics coach there at the time. He ended up recruiting me for the gymnastics team.”

She received about six different scholarships to help cover her tuition. One came from the local Benedictine Priory.

“Before I started at Saint Leo, I went to a weekend retreat with the Benedictine Sisters. I remember we did lots of group activities and positive affirmations. I still use a lot of those methods I learned from the nuns in my life today.”

In addition to academics, she recalls being involved in the sailing club on campus with her roommate. She was also a cheerleader for three years and was part of the guitar club. Plus, she did an internship at the local Montessori school. She remembers being on the homecoming court and that fellow student Sterling Marlin was named homecoming queen in 1976.

“I learned so much in those four years, so many life lessons.”

A photo of Pam Kitchen, a 1980 Saint Leo alumna, attending homecoming in 1976

She earned her bachelor’s degree in physical education and graduated in 1980.

Kitchen and one of her friends recently visited University Campus to see how the school has changed over the years.

“We even did handstands on the mat in the gym,” she says.

Several individuals who made a positive mark on her come to mind when reminiscing. Dr. Anderson was one of her philosophy professors. Bob Ackerman worked in student affairs. It was one of the nuns, however, who really stood out.

“Sister Mary Claire was my favorite person ever,” she says. “I actually got to see her when I went back and visited. I even attended Mass with my son on the anniversary for my husband and I after he had passed. It was so special.”

Based on her experience as a Saint Leo student, she offers up some advice to youngsters who are getting ready to enter college.

“Get ready to come in with an open mind. Take each experience moment by moment. Enjoy every single moment because they will be times you will cherish for the rest of your life.”

She adds that she’s had lifelong connections ever since collecting her college diploma.

“I’ve maintained lots of friends who I met at Saint Leo,” she says. “I can honestly say that going to school there helped me become who I am today.”

Health Battles

Cancer has taken a bit of a toll on the Kitchen family. Kitchen was married to her husband, Bill, for 38 years. He lost his battle with cancer in February 2015.

“He only survived for three months with the diagnosis,” she shares. “Then just four months later, bam, and I had stage 4 throat cancer.”

She received treatment at Shands Cancer Hospital in Gainesville where she lived at a place called the Hope Lodge. Designed for cancer patients, the facility is sponsored by the American Cancer Society and Winn-Dixie and provides a free stay for patients.

“Several of the people I met there passed away, but I’m still friends with many of the survivors. I never would have made those friendships had I not had cancer. That’s why I say everything is good no matter what happens in our lives.”

A Lifelong Love of Gymnastics

Since age nine, Kitchen has been either participating in or coaching gymnastics. She says watching gymnasts compete in the Olympics as a young girl inspired her to pursue the sport originally. She has taught hundreds of girls over the years.

“For me, the proudest part of all of this is the fact that so many of the girls have become successful women. It’s not about what you win in gymnastics but more about what you take away from this sport and how you apply those characteristics in the rest of your life.”

She currently operates Edgewater Gymnastics, a business in which she coaches primarily girls between the ages of three and 18. She and her niece, along with two former students, run the gym and teach all of the classes. She has been involved in teaching gymnastics since 1985.

Aside from molding her students into the best physically fit gymnasts they can be, her goal is to empower each girl to be a confident young woman in everything they do.

“From a young lady’s first speech class in college to going in for job interviews to personal relationships, I want them all to be confident in everything they do.”

Ultimately, she hopes she is doing something right every day.

“All I want to do is make a difference,” she says. “I love it when girls come back 10 or 15 years later with their own kids and want me to teach them. To me, that’s making a difference.”

A Hometown Hero

In October 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach, Fla., a mere 20 miles from where Kitchen’s gym was located in the Florida panhandle. It completely flattened the building, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

“Many of the girls I was coaching lost their homes as well,” she says. “There was a point where the girls had to travel 700 miles per week for me to continue coaching them.”

A year after it was devastated, the building had a re-grand opening.

“What a great day it was. Even though we didn’t have a place for the girls for a little while, we could still say that Hurricane Michael did not win.”

During this unveiling, she was awarded with a check for $25,000. The money came as a result of a contest called “Hometown Hero” in which Kitchen was one of two winners for what both have done to serve their communities. The contest was sponsored by Quicken Loans and Rocket Mortgage.

“This is the most honorable thing I’ve ever achieved,” she says. “I don’t think I’m a hero, and it is such an honor to have won this award.”

It was one of her students, 14-year-old Madison Ford, who wrote an essay about Kitchen and submitted it for consideration.

“Apparently they got thousands of entries for this. They narrowed it down to the top five and came and did a video about me. My video got over 75,000 views, and I was lucky enough to be one of the two winners.” (View the video below.)

She is incredibly appreciative of this recognition.

“I guess people do really think I make a difference.”

Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Pam Kitchen and are used with permission.

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