Alderman Pettyjohn has been selected from numerous nominees as the recipient of the first Distinguished Alumni Award, presented by the Wilmington University Alumni Association.
Alderman and alumna Kelly Pettyjohn uses her background, work experience and education to lead with compassion and make a positive impact in her community.
And she does that in Court 35 in Laurel, Delaware, where she speaks with elementary students about civics lessons, listens to defendants’ backgrounds, or sets up payment arrangements for those who find themselves in her court. An alderman is nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate to decide all violations of city ordinances occurring within the city.
Pettyjohn never imagined presiding over a courtroom. “I would not have guessed that I would be a judge,” she says. “I am honored to work in such a small town where I can get to know the stories of those who enter the court for whatever reason.”
She found solace in those stories, mainly because, at 17, she had been a victim of domestic violence in a romantic relationship. “I knew what it felt like to be scared and feel helpless,” she says. “Domestic violence can sometimes seem manageable until it’s too much to bear. I was able to heal from my experience through helping others find their voices. It was most important to me that we educated others to advocate for themselves when no one else could.”
Before becoming an alderman, Pettyjohn worked as a domestic violence liaison and program manager at People’s Place II, a multi-service nonprofit dedicated to helping people find their paths to growth and independence by connecting them with counseling, education, prevention, intervention, supportive services and advocacy. She coordinated and mediated visitations between custodial and non-custodial parents, and the position utilized her ability to deescalate emotionally-charged situations.
Pettyjohn earned two WilmU degrees: a bachelor’s in Behavioral Science in 2015, and a master’s in Administration of Justice in 2017. “My passion to work with domestic violence survivors in a more impactful way pushed me to continue my education,” she says.
The alderman hopes that her hard work is an inspiration to her 14-year-old daughter, Mollie. “I couldn’t imagine her going through everything I had to go through to find my voice,” says Pettyjohn. “I’m stronger because I know she’s watching.”
When Pettyjohn thinks about how differently things could’ve turned out, she’s “incredibly grateful,” she says. “I have spent the past 24 years trying to convince myself that I am worthy, and that is difficult once your spirit is crushed. I don’t need recognition or to be on television or in the news. Just the feeling that the folks in the town I serve feel welcome and comfortable talking to me or asking for help. That’s how I know I’m absolutely where I’m supposed to be.”