“We need to teach you how to hug.”

Chelli (SHELL-ee) used to tell me this at the end of a coffee date when we would part ways. She’s the type of sunshine-infused human who offers a hello/goodbye hug 100% of the time. You might witness her being unconditionally kind to a waiter in a restaurant, then later be inspired to make your own friendly conversation with a 7/11 cashier; subsequently making their day. In essence, Chelli has a contagious energy and a generally warm way of existing. She’s a channel of hope, an incredible creative mentor, and a deeply loving friend.

I am learning more and more how difficult it is to spend my early 20s in a large, fast-moving American city realizing I have a creative power that can foster positive change. It’s a tumultuous path; one of epiphany, derealization, connection, isolation, heartbreak followed by heartbreak, and love followed by love. When I moved to Chicago in 2014, loneliness had me shook so I followed my gut instinct to ask for help.

This urge led me to befriend my incredible freshman RA who is currently wrapping up a year long justice mission in the Philippines (talk about fostering change...). Katie (my RA) introduced me to Chelli at her apartment in the South Loop of Chicago during a faith social gathering. Before the gathering, Katie mentioned that Chelli had her own line of handbags and images of a round, sweet woman who stitched together brightly colored chunky bags came to mind. I don’t know why. I just thought “handbags = nice suburban mom lady.” Then I met Chelli; the polar opposite.

Chelli owns a company called the Chelli Harms Collection. And yes, she does make handbags but they are slick. They’re not “handbags”. They’re primed, polished, smoothed, and sexified cuts of local leather hand-sewn into classy pouches, purses, backpacks, and wallets. The shapes are simple, the style is minimal, and the color palette doesn’t deviate much from black and white (with the occasional tan and spotted cowhide). If you support conscious consumerism, quality products, local businesses, and companies that give back, I would highly recommend checking out CHC.

On a very first impression, I thought Chelli was one of the most confident women I had ever met. I love when positive first impressions become re-affirmed on an even greater scale. Thus, on a second impression, I thought Chelli was one of the most confident people in the world.

Chelli stands firm on the ground with two Marathon-trained limbs, walks with poise and spirit, and exudes optimism and empathy onto others. A passerby may immediately assume Chelli is grade A badass (which, she is), after noticing her shaved head, lean muscles, and customarily black and/or desaturated wardrobe. But Chelli doesn’t quite fit the androgynous mold as she also has a particular feminine elegance demonstrated by her gorgeous face. The only bright color she ever really wears is a shade of red or pink lipstick on her full, heart-shaped lips that will often stretch out into a brilliant smile. Chelli laughs a lot. It's awesome. One of my favorite things about listening to Chelli talk is the juxtaposition of her deep voice to the light, loving words she speaks. I like to ask Chelli the biggest questions I have because I love her answers. One time I asked her where evil comes from and I think I almost made her late to her next gig. Her responses are always woven together with hope and wisdom granted to her by the grace of God. They swirl and soak in a pool of optimism. This is astounding considering the darkness Chelli faced in her early twenties. I think of how often humans are confronted with the battle of cynicism and doubt vs. enthusiasm and faith. I recently asked Chelli if she considered herself a skeptic because of her big picture intuition. She responded that she didn’t like the word “skeptic”, and prefers to label her questioning as a “loving curiosity.” Essentially, Chelli lives a life of wonder. Simple. Beautiful.

One of the most powerful moments of friendship I’ve experienced in my lifetime occurred in church with Chelli. I sat next to her during a prayer time and closed my eyes while Chelli placed her hand on my knee and prayed for me. I began to cry, which doesn’t come to me easily in a public setting. I decided to take a leap of faith and surrender into the emotion further as Chelli held me in her arms. She told me after prayer that she could feel love pouring through her and onto me and asked about what I had just experienced.

Me: “Well, I felt really vulnerable.”

Chelli: “Haha I love your honesty.”

“I think I just realized I don’t allow myself to be held and when I do, it’s sometimes with the wrong people.”

“Hhhmmm yep.”

Sometimes I’ll just state truths I’ve come to realize as I grow and Chelli will nod and say “yep”, “huh-uh”, “mmm”, or “amen.” If their sad “truths”, she’ll offer a new perspective. I love her for this.

I feel straight-up lucky to know Chelli. I hear her words in my head when I am facing a doubt, a fear, a creative roadblock, a sadness, or a challenge. I’m so grateful I was a lost little weirdo in 2014 who fought through being shy and awkward just to get to know Chelli better. Real life creative mentors can be hard to come by. Our role models tend to be authors, musicians, entrepreneurs, and artists we’ve become familiar with through the media’s accessibility but it’s amazing when you find a hero to connect with in real time.

So here’s to you Chelli. Thanks for helping me grow, inspiring me toward faith, and radiating light. Love you friend.