Single mother returns to earn TMU degree, finish basketball

Kelly Burns graduated from The Master’s University on May 5, roughly three years after she left school to prepare to give birth to Kendall, right. Burns returned to play her final two basketball seasons at TMU. Courtesy photo

On Mother’s Day weekend two years ago, at Crossroads Community Church in Valencia, on a chair not a pew, Dan Waldeck prayed.

Waldeck, the women’s basketball coach at The Master’s University, prayed for his mother, Elaine. He prayed for his wife, Cindy. He prayed for Kelly Burns.

Give Kelly wisdom and energy to raise her daughter Kendall in a godly way, he asked…

A year earlier, Waldeck had cried with Burns, a Mustang forward, for three hours inside his office. She was pregnant. She was scared.

“I told her, ‘My goal someday is that you walk across that Master’s stage with a degree so you can provide for your daughter,’” Waldeck recalls.

It was a dream Burns never gave up on – finishing college. The basketball part, well, she figured sacrifices had to be made when you give birth at 21.

Please, God, provide for her…

After Waldeck prayed on that spring day in 2015, Burns remained on his mind. The coach thought about his team’s need of a post player. He considered the high-character, high-motor forward he’d already recruited once.

Then he called Burns and set into motion one of the program’s greatest success stories.

From athlete to mom

When Waldeck refers to Burns as one of the greatest successes in TMU women’s basketball history, it isn’t because she’s one of the program’s all-time great players. Over four seasons, she averaged a solid, if not spectacular, stat line of 5.9 points and 4.1 rebounds.

No, Burns’ place in TMU lore stems from her perseverance.

She first caught Waldeck’s eye around 2010 when he saw her play in a pair of club tournaments. She was tall, skilled and she always played hard.

“I was sold,” Waldeck says. “Hook, line and sinker.”

Kelly Burns and her daughter, Kendall, 2, at The Master’s University’s graduation on May 5 at College of the Canyons. Courtesy photo

Burns played 20 minutes a game off the bench during her first college season in 2012-13 and started 26 times as a sophomore. Off the court, she navigated arduous biology classes and acclimated to life on the conservative, Christian campus.

“I was learning what it truly meant to be a Christian,” she says.

Then came shock, fear and concern.

Each feeling thrust itself upon Burns’ mother, Dena, when Burns told her she was pregnant in the summer of 2014.

Burns was scared, too. A crystal-clear future had suddenly grown fuzzy.

She scheduled an abortion.

“I wanted to just terminate it and go back to my normal life,” she says.

Burns prayed. She discussed the decision with friends and her mother, who urged her to postpone the procedure and do research.

Mother and daughter then camped out on Dena’s bed for two or three days, both on laptops.

Google search terms included single, Christian, mom, abortion and athlete.

One day, Burns came across the story of a college volleyball player who had a child and managed to finish school.

“There were pictures of her and her little boy,” Dena recalls. “Right then, Kelly said, ‘I’m keeping my baby. I’m going to do this.’”

“By God’s grace, He changed my mind,” Kelly says.

Burns moved home to Orange County and enrolled at Santiago Canyon College in Orange. She took a full class load. She earned A’s and B’s. She started a blog – ‘From Athlete to Mommy: Surviving Single Motherhood’ – to share her experience.

She kept in touch with former teammates over text message, and the team threw her a baby shower, but at times she felt isolated.

She attended a handful of Mustang basketball games, but still missed the sport.

“I realized how much I truly enjoyed basketball,” Burns says, “and that I took it for granted.”

Then, on Feb. 2, 2015, Burns gave birth to Kendall Grace.

The next chapter was ready to unfold for one of TMU’s biggest success stories.

The return

The call came in May 2015. Burns didn’t see how it could work. She’d planned to return to TMU for her senior year, but playing basketball at the school as a junior wasn’t plausible.

Waldeck believed it was.

Over the coming months, school officials ironed out the details. A week before school started, a family connected to the college agreed to rent Burns and Kendall a room.

Thus began the two most hectic years of Burns’ life.

Kendall’s grandmother describes her as a firecracker, independent and smart. Here she plays in The Master’s University’s locker room. Courtesy photo

She attended class on campus three days a week and also took online courses. She shuffled off to two-hour basketball practices and hurried home to care for Kendall, who at one point woke up every hour during the night.

Burns learned to live off little sleep. Sometimes she barely had time to eat after feeding Kendall or bathing her.

If Kendall was sick, Burns missed practice to be with her. If Burns was sick, she missed practice and stayed home with her daughter.

It all took a lot of planning. And a lot of players.

Burns’ brother, Eric, would sometimes get off school in Orange County, fight traffic for two hours to Santa Clarita and pick up Kendall from day care.

He’d watch her for an hour till Burns returned from an away game.

Burns’ older sister, Ally, a high school English teacher, sometimes did the same.

Dena, Burns’ father, Michael, and students on campus all pitched in.

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“Musical baby, I guess you could call it,” Dena says.

Kendall, Dena adds, is a firecracker. She’s independent and strong. She’s smart and loving.

Traits, Dena says, the girl, now 2, gets from her mother.

“She is selfless, loving, kind, patient,” Dena says of Burns. “She’s an amazing mother.”

As for basketball, Burns rehabbed from the lingering effects of a knee injury she sustained before pregnancy and worked back into basketball shape.

She played 14.5 minutes a game her first season back and started 18 times this year as a senior, helping the Mustangs to the NAIA national tournament both seasons.

That, though, meant she’d be out of state for a week, and her support system had to go into overdrive.

“They say it takes a village,” Dena says, “and it did.”

On May 5, Burns walked across the stage at Cougar Stadium, a TMU grad with a biology degree.

Waldeck teared up. Burns beamed at Kendall.

The pair moved back to Orange County last week to live with family. (Kendall’s father and Burns aren’t together, but he visits as frequently as he can).

Burns, 23, expects to start a job at an outpatient surgery center next week.

She plans to apply to nursing schools in 2018 – the next chapter for one of TMU’s biggest success stories.

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