BIG STONE GAP, Va. (WJHL)- A man with special needs was at the center of a July 4th celebration in Southwest Virginia Thursday.
Chris Kelly, 47, was named grand marshal of Big Stone Gap’s holiday parade after news spread that he may not be able to continue volunteering with Union High School sports teams.
Chris’s family said they were initially told by Union High School’s new principal Tuesday that he wouldn’t be allowed on school grounds any longer.
“I was just kind of sad because it hurt my feelings,” Chris told News Channel 11.
BreAnna Caudill, Chris’s sister, said she too was upset. “It’s honestly his life. That’s what makes him get up in the morning and that’s why he goes to bed with pride in his heart knowing that he’s helped those boys and helped the coaches,” she said.
“You don’t take that joy away from somebody,” said Kathy Kelly, Chris’s mother.
News quickly spread on social media, prompting more than 75 hundred people to sign a petition supporting Chris.
That’s when town leaders decided to make him grand marshal of the July 4th parade.
“Chris is important to this community and always meets us with a smile and we just wanted to do something for him to show him we still loved him,” said Big Stone Gap Town Manager Stephen Lawson.
Union High Principal Mark Goforth followed up with the family on Wednesday, the day after their initial conversation.
Wise County Schools Superintendent Greg Mullins described the incident as a misunderstanding. “There was never a ban. There was never ‘you’re not allowed in any activities.’ That was never the case,” he said.
Goforth told the family that Chris will be able to continue volunteering with sports teams after school.
He said Chris won’t be allowed on school grounds during instructional hours.
“We have complete and full understanding of that rule,” said Caudill.
Chris, popularly known as Union High School’s “number one fan,” said he plans to return to the sidelines this season with a few fans of his own.
“I can’t help that I’m famous,” Chris said before he threw an autographed shirt to the crowd.
“He’s just a guy everybody loves,” said Tracy Cress, Big Stone Gap business owner.
That was obvious at the parade.
Community members lined the streets, screaming “We love you,” and holding signs reading, “We stand with Chris.”
“I think we both knew Chris was loved but we never could’ve imagined this kind of support,” said Caudill. “I think the lesson to be learned is whenever people are down you always have people to pick you back up.”