A heart murmur may have cemented Deb Kay's love of sports and taught her an important life lesson: If you want something badly enough, you can find a way.
"Heart murmurs were a much bigger concern back then," said Deb. "The doctors told my mom that my life would be seriously affected and I wouldn't be nearly as active as other kids. I just doubled down—I had to be able to play. It made me stronger."
And play she did. Neighborhood sports ruled the day, especially as organized sports did not exist then for girls. Even into high school opportunities were scarce, and she turned to cheerleading. It wasn't until college that she had her first real exposure to a variety of sports.
"There were all these physical education classes—I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I took a different class every semester—racquetball, squash, swimming, tennis, fencing. I had more than enough classes to minor in PE."
While Deb dreamed of a career in sports, sports degrees were nonexistent in college. She majored in communications and business instead, and went into political campaign management after college. But she never lost sight of her first love.
However possible throughout her life, Deb participated in sports. She played competitive tennis and racquetball; refereed football, softball and volleyball; and coached her son's teams. Eight years ago, she was tapped to join the board of a new nonprofit organization called the West Michigan Sports Commission, established to attract youth and amateur sports events to West Michigan. Deb's responsibilities grew as she chaired committees, and she was elected in January 2015 as the board chair—the second in the organization's history. "I'm so proud of this organization and how we not only bring in dollars and jobs to our community through sports, but we give people incredible experiences."
Deb is excited about the sports industry today, including the expanded opportunities for women. She sees far more woman coaches and competitors in virtually every sport. She also feels the explosion of collegiate sports management programs is "a game changer" in helping more women land sports careers. The West Michigan Sports Commission is a perfect example of this shift, with women comprising sixty percent of its full-time staff.
Deb would like to see more women in sports leadership. She encourages them to get involved, whether volunteering at a sporting event or requesting to join the commission's advisory council, a group of community advocates including the likes of FOX 17 Anchor Michele DeSelms, Kent County Commissioner Diane Jones, and Calvin College Director of Athletics Nancy Meyer. And she'd like to see more women on the board.
The most rewarding aspect of being involved in West Michigan's sports industry, for Deb, is witnessing how sports improve lives. She cites the sports commission's Meijer State Games, in which the everyday athlete can compete. The commission's most auspicious project—the new baseball-softball Art Van Sports Complex—is also home to the West Michigan Miracle Field, where children with mobility issues can play ball.
"People dig in and achieve things they didn't know possible through sports—whether a youth in a wheelchair playing softball, or an ninety-year-old running in track and field events at the State Games," said Deb. "Sports give people the ability to do anything."
In this profile: Deb Kay, chair of the West Michigan Sports Commission board of directors, may be reached at [email protected]. To learn more about the West Michigan Sports Commission, visit www.westmisports.com or call 616.233.3560.
Written by: Kim Skeltis owns a solo public relations consultancy, Blue Blaze Public Relations, LLC, where she represents organizations throughout the region, including the West Michigan Sports Commission. Kim may be reached at [email protected].