Kari and Cole McCormick 02

Kari McCormick started her business, Bella K, before the birth of her son, but his struggles with Sensory Processing Disorder gave the business’s mission a whole new meaning.
Image Credit: Kinston Photography - Tiffany Ashmore

Kari McCormick has never had a shortage of passions, nor a shortage of opportunities to combine them. She loves crafts and fashion. She wrote a high school research paper on the history of shoes. In her opinion, the right pair of shoes can “change your life.”

But even more than a cute pair of wedges, McCormick has always enjoyed working with young people, especially those who have the odds stacked against them. While in high school, she taught craft activities with elementary school children, her first foray into motivating children by helping them explore their creative side.

Why wouldn’t she combine her passions when the opportunity presented itself?

Although McCormick didn’t realize it at the time, she was on to something when she mixed her passions into something unique. It’s why she became an effective teacher and motivator. It’s why she’s now at the helm of a growing business. Most importantly for her, it’s why she was able to provide the love and attention her son needed when the world began closing in on him.

McCormick moved to Clemson University from Florida in 1993. She yearned for a place with actual seasons, and she loved the university’s atmosphere and community feeling during a campus visit. She made lifelong friends during her time as a student. Her love for helping others and working with children made education a natural career path. The faculty were tough, but in the best way possible.

“The faculty taught me to question and have a curiosity about things, and they always pushed me to delve a little deeper and take responsibility for figuring things out,” McCormick said. “The further I got into the major the more it made me realize it was what I wanted to do.”

McCormick emerged from Clemson with a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, and her first year after graduation was tough. She moved to Arizona to teach in an inner-city school in Phoenix, and it was an eye-opening experience. She was warned not to stand by the front gates during school dismissal because the district wouldn’t cover the cost of a gunshot wound.

“I learned that safety and security have to come first before an educator can make a difference,” McCormick said. “The outside world was what it was, but I learned to create a safe place for my students where their voices could be heard, where they could learn. It was probably the class I grew the closest to in my career.”

The first few years of her 12-year career as a teacher were a proving ground for McCormick’s ability to create a place in which her students could excel. However, after she settled into her role as an educator back on the East Coast, the call of her crafty side became too loud to ignore.

Bella K 01

A product initially inspired by headbands worn by cyclists became an entire of line of sandals customized with school colors.
Image Credit: Kinston Photography - Tiffany Ashmore

While visiting her parents in Daytona Beach during bike week, sudden inspiration hit. Amidst a mass of motorcycles, McCormick didn’t hear the roar of engines; she saw a sea of colorful bandanas. She also saw a flip flop on almost every foot at the nearby beach.

And so, Bella K was born, or at least an early incarnation of it. McCormick’s handmade, bandana-covered flip flops became a hit at bike rallies and craft fairs. Flip flops flew off of shelves as quickly as McCormick could make them. It was her blind foray into the role of entrepreneur, and for several years it served as a rewarding side career.

“Before I knew it I was researching overseas manufacturers and importing sandals to modify,” McCormick said. “I got my parents involved. It just kind of happened.”

Then came Cole; McCormick’s son was born in 2010. She anticipated a temporary pause on teaching and her business, but she would soon realize her maternity leave would become a permanent exit from the classroom. And not just the classroom; everything would be put on hold.

Even though she was a first-time mother, McCormick knew something was “different” about Cole. A walk outside in bright sunlight would elicit screams. The motion of a stroller would cause enough discomfort to make Cole vomit. The same with swings. And car seats. And sleeping in general. The feel of bedding on his skin would wake him. For the first 19 months, two straight hours of sleep was a blessing.

“I was made to feel that I was overreacting, but I stuck to my guns because I knew something was wrong,” McCormick said. “I found an amazing pediatrician that diagnosed him almost immediately. Then we had supplements so sleep could actually happen, and therapy eventually got him to a turning point.”

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It took 19 months until a pediatrician finally diagnosed Cole with Sensory Processing Disorder. The condition exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don’t get organized into appropriate responses.
Image Credit: Kinston Photography - Tiffany Ashmore

The pediatrician diagnosed Cole with Sensory Processing Disorder. While many children with the disorder under-respond to sensory input, Cole’s issues were quite the opposite. It was as if Cole’s senses were somehow exceeding maximum volume. Cole is now seven, and aside from some sound sensitivity, things are “night and day” compared to his younger years.

The experience of caring for a son who was “scared of the world” put things into perspective for McCormick. She had to research Cole’s disorder and get creative to find ways to help put his fears at ease. She soon realized the benefits for Cole could easily translate to kids of all ages.

Why wouldn’t she combine her passions when the opportunity presented itself?

Bella K bridal

Bella K’s bridal line has been a hit with brides planning beach and outdoor weddings.
Image Credit: Kate Lynn Imagery - Kate Lynn

McCormick put all her effort behind Bella K. She expanded the brand and doubled down on injecting it with a mission: to help young people feel strong, empowered and perfect just the way they are. In December 2016, as the business grew, McCormick started Selfie Style, a sponsored workshop in which young girls hear from inspiring speakers and engage in empowering activities.

And business is good. Clemson fans can find Bella K footwear in orange and white at the Tiger Sports Shop in Clemson, and McCormick is targeting other audiences in retail locations in nine other states. That’s to say nothing of online orders and Bella K’s new bridal footwear line.

McCormick knows that she’s learning as she goes; she’s an education major tackling work typically suited for someone with a business degree. She’s happy with slow and steady increases in sales, keeping the product homemade, and growth that allows her to give just as much thought to the mission that makes her—and her business—unique.

“When Cole was a baby, I was a mom on the hunt to figure things out, and a mom who’s driven in that way is hard to stop,” McCormick said. “That experience sparked something in me, so I want to use this business as a vehicle to share that spark. To make children feel cared for and brave in the way Cole eventually felt.”