By Jeff Murphy, January 2, 2024
De’Vante James (D.J.) McNeal, left, a University of Central Missouri freshman from Kansas City, is the first recipient of the Homer and Becky Kay “I Matter” Scholarship for a student who attended the Operation Breakthrough Ignition Lab, which is powered by Travis Kelce’s Eight-Seven and Running Foundation. An agreement establishing the scholarship endowment was signed in 2023 at the Ignition Lab during a brief ceremony that included, left to right in right photo, Mary Esselman, president and CEO of Operation Breakthrough; Becky and Homer Kay, Leawood, Kansas; and Courtney Goddard, vice president for advancement and executive director of the UCM Alumni Foundation.
WARRENSBURG, MO -- Combining their deep appreciation for the University of Central
Missouri with their desire to support students, a Leawood, Kansas, couple has created
an endowed scholarship for students who participated in Operation Breakthrough’s Ignition Lab, powered by Travis Kelce’s Eighty-Seven and Running Foundation.
The first Homer and Becky Kay “I Matter” Scholarship was awarded in fall 2023 to a young Kansas City resident pursuing his degree in Music Technology at UCM. Before enrolling as a freshman at UCM, De’Vante James (D.J.) McNeal attended the Ewing Marion Kauffman School from grade 6 to 12 and participated in the Ignition Lab.
Aligned to Kansas City’s Real World Learning Initiative, which is sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Ignition Lab is a makerspace for students ages 14 to 18 who have aged out of Operation Breakthrough's MakerSpace program for elementary and middle school children. Operation Breakthrough is a nationally accredited not-for-profit organization providing quality child care, advocacy, STEM education, emergency aid and health and wellness outreach to families living in poverty in the inner city. Support from Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce’s Eighty-Seven and Running Foundation made possible the renovation of a former muffler shop that now serves as the space for Ignition Lab programs ranging from culinary arts and robotics to digital media and agriculture.
These programs are designed to help students who come from socioeconomically challenged communities prepare for college or post-secondary job training. McNeal exemplifies the type of student for whom the “I Matter” Scholarship is intended. He was the first Ignition Lab student in the Digital Media after-school program, and his drive and enthusiasm caught the attention of his teachers.
“Before we had a full-time after-school program, D.J. was helping younger students learn music technology while also self-learning his own skills in music production,” Ignition Lab teacher Ian O’Neill stated. “D.J.’s first project was to finish building an electric guitar in the electronics program and write a performance piece with it. Over two years in the Ignition Lab, D.J. went from little music production knowledge to being able to write his own pieces for his Music Tech audition.”
McNeal, who has learned to play instruments such as the piano and guitar by ear, said the connection he made with O’Neill stirred his interest in the University of Central Missouri, just an hour drive from Kansas City, as a place to pursue his passion. Coursework toward the Bachelor of Science in Music Technology gives McNeal an opportunity to hone his composition skills.
“Spreading music that connects with all types of people through blending different genres is my passion,” McNeal stated. “I want to be a music producer and composer who blends together artists. My dream is that all styles of musicians come to me.”
The Ignition Lab provided many opportunities for McNeal to develop skills that will pave the way for success in higher education and a future career in music technology. It also afforded him the opportunity to meet Travis Kelce, one of his favorite NFL players. McNeal is grateful to behind-the-scenes supporters like Homer and Becky Kay for the scholarship that came as a welcome surprise and will continue to provide financial support in the spring semester.
The Kays are 1978 graduates of UCM’s Bachelor of Science in Accounting program and longtime metropolitan area residents. They were introduced to Operation Breakthrough through a friend and former educator, Mary Esselman, the organization’s president and CEO. They were impressed with the Ignition Lab after taking a tour.
“We wanted to do something to give back in some small way — something that could last forever, way beyond our lifetime,” said Homer.
Homer, who is a former Knob Noster, Missouri resident, met Becky, from Russellville, Missouri, while they were taking classes at UCM. The couple married after they graduated and has been together for 43 years. Becky’s professional background included working in public accounting in the Kansas City area, with previous service as chief financial officer for the Johnson County (Kansas) Water District. Homer put his accounting acumen to work initially for the Missouri State Auditor’s Office, and later landed a position with Hallmark. He climbed the corporate ladder in roles that took him across the globe, including living in England with his wife and two children while he was CEO for Hallmark International. In 2019, he retired as senior global executive for Hallmark Cards Inc. after 39 years of service.
Although their work routines have changed, the Kays’ interest in education is ongoing. Homer currently serves as president of the UCM Alumni Foundation, a position that has motivated him to demonstrate their passion for the university and their love for the Kansas City community by making college more affordable for students like McNeal. This commitment is greatly appreciated by UCM.
“We at the University of Central Missouri are so grateful to Homer and Becky Kay for establishing this transformational scholarship,” said Courtney Goddard, vice president for advancement and executive director of the UCM Alumni Foundation. “We are very proud of this relationship with both Operation Breakthrough and with the Ignition Lab, both of which provide some of Kansas City’s most promising students with environments in which to safely learn, develop , innovate and grow into the best versions of themselves. With this scholarship, those students can continue on that positive path at UCM.”
The Homer and Becky Kay “I Matter” Scholarship will be awarded each year to a student who has participated in Operation Breakthrough’s Ignition Lab and is seeking a degree from the University of Central Missouri. To learn more about this and other scholarships available through the UCM Alumni Foundation, visit ucmfoundation.org.