Kellerman is retiring from John Graham
VERGENNES — Chronologically, Peter Kellerman has served seven years as executive director of John Graham Housing & Services (JGH&S), a Vergennes nonprofit that runs a homeless shelter, transitional housing, and programs that help people transition to permanent accommodations.
But with all the stress and hard work that goes into transforming people’s lives, you’ll understand if Kellerman feels like he’s worked at JGH&S much longer. The last year probably seems like 20 to him, given the challenges of safely housing folks during a pandemic that has required social distancing — a tough order when it comes to lodging the homeless in a group setting.
The work has been incredibly rewarding, but it’s taken a toll on Kellerman, 64, and indeed on all those assisting a vulnerable population during an unprecedented time.
So Kellerman has decided to take a timeout to take care of himself for a while. And that means stepping down as top administrator of JGH&S in late March.
“This decision was directly influenced by the pandemic,” he said during a recent interview with the Independent. “It was all about reprioritizing life and looking at life a lot differently.”
Kellerman stressed he’s not transitioning to a new job.
“I’m 64, and I need a break,” he said, adding “I try to look back on those years (in human services), and it’s a blur. And looking through the frame of 2020 has changed life so dramatically.”
Kellerman joined JGH&S in 2013 as a senior service coordinator. He’d been working as a benefits specialist with the Economic Service Division of the Vermont Department for Children & Families. Prior to that, he’d been employed with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, helping people secure emergency housing.
It was during his time with CVOEO that Kellerman, a Weybridge resident, frequently worked with JGH&S to get shelter for folks in the Addison County area.
“I was in touch with the shelter almost on a daily basis,” he recalled of the many clients who gained assistance through the collaboration.
“It was a wonderful experience and it left me very impressed with JGH&S and the work they did,” Kellerman said. “It planted a seed.”
That seed grew into employment with JGH&S and a quick ascent up its leadership ranks.
He succeeded then-assistant director Paige Ackerson-Kiely in 2016. Only two years later, he and colleague Kate Schirmer-Smith were named co-directors of JGH&S when Elizabeth Ready transitioned from the top spot to become the organization’s chief financial officer.
Ready will also be leaving JGH&S in a few months, and the Independent will publish a separate retrospective on her lengthy career later this winter.
Kellerman became the sole director of JGH&S in early 2020 when Schirmer-Smith found employment closer to her home.
“The opportunities kept coming, and the experience was so rich and rewarding,” Kellerman said of his rise up the JGH&S leadership ranks.
Clearly, Kellerman and his team have made a huge impact on services for the county’s homeless during a relatively short period of time. And COVID-19 has been a catalyst for changes that have ranged from the purchase of three modular homes recently placed into the Bristol Kountry Trailer Park, to a number of renovations at the John W. Graham Emergency shelter aimed at preventing guests from catching the virus.
As always, Kellerman insisted on sharing credit with coworkers. He oversees a JGH&S staff of five full-time positions, as well as two AmeriCorps volunteers and two shelter night managers.
“It’s not one person who makes it happen,” he said. “I inherited a good legacy and I’ve had good talent to work with all along. The stars aligned to make this a wonderful experience.”
Accomplishments during his watch have included:
• Acquisition of a four-unit apartment house on North Pleasant Street in Middlebury for folks transitioning from homelessness. It was the fifth apartment building added to JGH&S portfolio.
• Securing federal grants that have allowed the organization to increase the number of affordable housing vouchers for Addison County residents in need.
• Strengthening ties between JGH&S and its community partners.
“My specialty was getting people housed, whether it was in our own units when they were available … or establishing a good relationship with landlords — including the Addison County Community Trust, who is our closest partner when it comes to housing folks,” Kellerman said.
His background working with CVOEO, the state of Vermont and briefly with the Counseling Service of Addison County helped him recognize the importance of collaboration.
“It takes a lot to get folks helped, and we all need to get along and be available to each other,” he said. “Having worked for CVOEO and the state and CSAC, you become familiar with the fact that each agency has a different reality. And having some awareness of that helps orchestrate collaboration. So I felt that was a unique perspective I had, and a certain measure of respect for what others do and can’t do because of (their respective missions).”
Plans called for JGH&S to invite its many community partners to a shindig marking the shelter’s 40th anniversary. But the pandemic wrote a different script for 2020.
“There are no celebrations this year,” he said of the worldwide emphasis on social distancing. “It’s so sobering you have to look at life and accept it where it’s at, and let it be. This has been a year about reprioritizing and making sure things that really need attention, get it.”
But whenever Kellerman starts to feel sad that JGH&S has been deprived of a symbolic party, he remembers the organization’s mission — which has never been more important. Those partners — including the city of Vergennes and donors — continue to support the shelter from a safe distance.
“It’s amazing, particularly at this time of year, you see how many people come forth to make sure homeless families and individuals have some sort of holiday joy — whether it’s Thanksgiving meals or gifts,” Kellerman said. “You begin to realize you’re part of a greater picture, and I’ve really enjoyed that.”
Kellerman had originally planned to call his departure “retirement,” but he hasn’t closed the door to some kind of occupation when he feels reenergized.
The next chapter might not even be in the realm of human services; Kellerman has developed a talent and affinity for photography during the past two years.
“I’ve really learned to appreciate being out in nature and there’s a great deal of inspiration and healing that comes here in Vermont,” he said. “I’ve learned to embrace that and be available to it in ways I haven’t been in the past. There’s a lot of personal fulfillment in that.”
What will he miss most?
Being part of a service that addresses deep human needs.
“On a personal level, that’s been most rewarding part of it — to participate in helping people stabilize, to bring safety into their lives, to be a part of a process that brings some hope, and to help that process work so closely with individuals who’ve suffered and continue to suffer,” Kellerman said.
The JGH&S board has appointed a search team to vet candidates for Kellerman’s position. The hope, according to Kellerman, is to get the new executive director on board in March.
Nancy Slater Cobden chairs the JGH&S board. She said she admired the “calm confidence” that Kellerman exhibited while implementing the Vermont Department of Health guidelines for congregate shelters. She’s also appreciated his ability to “focus on serving our residents and helping them to reach their goals” in a manner that “has resulted in many successful transitions to safe, affordable, and permanent housing in spite of the nearly insurmountable obstacles presented by COVID-19.”
“Pete has always shown a deep level of care and concern for staff as we have navigated this unprecedented crisis,” Cobden said. “His focus has been the physical and emotional well-being of all. He has secured hazard pay whenever it has been available, and, at the request of a major donor, arranged much deserved year-end bonuses.”
Ready first got to know Kellerman during his time at CVOEO, where she witnessed his role in securing emergency services that changed people’s lives.
“Imagine yourself with a little one, no home to go to, every place is full, your cell phone about to run out of minutes and all the eligibility criterion are against you,” Ready said. “Then you get Pete on the phone and it’s like a moment of temporary salvation. How people are treated at those times is as important as what is actually given. Pete always gave respect and care. He saw each person and what it would take for the system to serve them. So we asked him to join our team and help us create a culture of kindness for people experiencing homelessness. And that’s exactly what he did each day in his various roles at John Graham. Pete is the rare person genuinely grateful for each person he meets. He is able to see their qualities. An attitude like that can pervade an organization.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
This past Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, saw almost 60 people converge upon the 1,400-square-foot … (read more)
Two state lawmakers are urging Addison County folks not to ease up on efforts to battle cl … (read more)