Keri Nelson

Executive Director 
Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity
Chair, HPS College and Career Readiness Council

 

Bio/Professional Experience

I currently serve as the Executive Director for Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity.  I came to Rockford almost three years ago, not knowing a lot about it and I quickly fell in love with this city and the people who live here.  I began volunteering with Habitat when I was 20 years old, so I had a lot of experience with our program, so I was able to focus a lot of my time initially on getting to know the community.  Prior to coming to Habitat, I served as a juvenile probation officer, then entered the non-profit world and spent 8 years fundraising for oncology related programs and services.

 

Recently we celebrated the completion of the first Habitat for Humanity Home that was built by Guilford High School students in partnership with your team. Can you tell me about this experience and what might have surprised you?

Getting to build with the students of Guilford High School has been an absolutely incredible experience!!!  Getting to witness them learn the stages of building a home and seeing them put it all together in their minds was so powerful.  I remember the day we raised the walls on the first story and seeing the looks on their faces as the panels started to fit together actually start forming a house – they were amazed, and so was I.  Hearing the words of one of the students “this is the biggest accomplishment of my life” was a pivotal moment for me.  There are lots of things that go into a project like this, and in that moment, all the time, effort and financial resources were all worth it to hear that young man proclaim that statement. 

The thing that surprised me the most was the bond that the students formed with the homeowner.  In “normal” Habitat builds we see that all the time – volunteers build a relationship with the homeowner – they get to know them personally and that makes their volunteer time well worth the effort.  In this case, I wasn’t sure the students would get the chance to form that kind of bond, but boy was I wrong!!!!!  Justin, our homeowner took the opportunity to get to know these students and ran with it.  He talked to them about the life he had lived in the past and how school was important in your future success.  He told them about the mistakes he made – and was brutally honest – about the consequences of those mistakes.  He got to know them personally and helped mentor them to be better people.  He encouraged them to stay in school, get a good job and someday buy a home for their families.  The students ate it up.  They exchanged phone numbers with him and offered to help him move, they told him how happy they were for him, but most of all they thanked him, for believing in them and for working side by side with them.

 

Why is it important to you to provide opportunities like this to Rockford students?

I believe in this philosophy for so many reasons – but the main reason it’s important to me is because the students in Rockford deserve a chance to be set up for a bright future, no matter their academic success, no matter their career desires.  When someone first told me about Academies and that the focus was shifting to ensure that ALL students were prepared for either college or careers, I was proud.  The students that built our home this year aren’t all college bound – and that’s okay – because at 17 years old, they built a house…not just any house, but a house that will help an amazing family live a better, safer, more financially stable life. That’s why it’s important – because I firmly believe that EVERY student has a chance to make a significant impact on our community, our state and our world and programs like this empower them to do just that!

 

You have been an active community volunteer within the high school academies since the start and have recently been designated the Chair of the Human and Public Services College and Career Readiness Council (HPS CCRC.) What has this experience been like for you?

I was so nervous when I was first asked to join the College and Career Readiness Council for both HPS and EMITT – I wasn’t sure I had a voice at the table and didn’t know that I could offer something substantial to the school district.  It was at a CCRC meeting that I mentioned to the Construction teacher that we could have the students build the walls for one of our homes.  The smile on his face was a clear indication that was exactly the kind of partnership he was looking for, and from that moment on I was hooked!  Being the chair of the HPS CCRC has been such an inspiring and uplifting experience for me – and has taught me so much about the process and the people it takes to make Academies successful.  I’m honored to get to help lead this group of highly dedicated, intelligent, passionate professionals from both the school district and the community.

 

What can we expect to see out of the CCRC and Academies in the coming school year?

In the coming school year, we’re hoping to define the role of the CCRC’s, expand the reach to more community members and school personnel, and work to help establish a common language not only with those involved, but the community as well.  As we look to the future of Academies, the CCRC’s will play a crucial role in establishing the direction and strategy of the next phase and I’m thrilled I get to be a part of that discussion!