Keri’s story with Habitat for Humanity began when she was a 19-year-old resident assistant at her university. She needed to do a community service project and McDonough County Habitat for Humanity was the option that was still available. Keri signed up and invited other students to come with her. Before she knew it, she was one of 12 freshman girls showing up at a Habitat for Humanity worksite on a Saturday morning at 8am.
“I just had this life changing experience… this really cool moment of clarity on that worksite,” she said. “And I just kept going back.”
And the longer she continued with Habitat, the more motivated she was to stay involved.
“It was so empowering. It was so amazing. It filled my soul,” Keri said.
After she graduated college and moved to DeKalb, Keri quickly found the Habitat affiliate there. She volunteered on Saturdays, got involved in the chapter at NIU, and was invited to be on the affiliate’s Board of Directors. In fact, at the first meeting, she was sworn in as the board’s vice president. She served on the board for nine years, and for a large portion of that time, she was involved with hurricane relief work.
“I went to Pensacola for two years to do Hurricane Ivan relief work over spring break… we partnered with the Pensacola affiliate,” she said “I just loved the comradery, I loved the empowerment, I loved it.”
After Hurricane Katrina, the DeKalb affiliate was contacted by the Habitat affiliate in Slidell, Louisiana. Their city had taken a massive storm surge off of Lake Pontchartrain, and two miles of the city were completely demolished. The Habitat affiliate was hoping to build 100 homes, and they reached out to other affiliates across the nation, asking for help. When Keri got the letter, she put an ad in the newspaper and recruited volunteers. The community came together to provide volunteers and funds for builds in Slidell, and Keri went with a group from DeKalb down to Louisiana for one week.
“I thought that my time with Habitat was life changing before that, but this was… this changed my life. It changed my life,” she said. Then, with a matter-of-fact look on her face, she added, “So I went back 12 times.”
In the following years, Keri used every bit of her vacation and personal time off to take groups back to Slidell.
There’s no casual way to slip this in here, but a fun fact about this season of Keri’s life is that in 2010, she was nominated as one of Oprah’s Everyday Heroes for her volunteer work with Habitat, and she actually got to go to Oprah’s Favorite Things episode! Make sure to ask her about it sometime.
Throughout the years of volunteering during her free time, Keri was working another full time job, and this rhythm of life was beginning to be exhausting.
One day, her sister randomly sent her an email, saying that Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity was looking for an Executive Director. The text in the email said, “Maybe you could take a real vacation now.”
Something about that clicked for Keri. And even though she didn’t think she’d get the job, she applied and showed up in Rockford for an interview in July of 2014. Spoiler alert: she was hired.
Keri says that at the time, she didn’t know how to run a nonprofit. But she thinks that the group that interviewed her saw something deeper than that.
“I think what they saw was my love. They saw my passion, they saw that I’d given so much of my life to Habitat, and I could learn to be an executive director,” she said. “My love of Habitat… I could do that every day. I could spend my life in this ministry, and not just my vacation days. Because it’s hard when you fall in love with something and you have limited resources to do it, or limited time to do it, but now I get to get up every day and do this.”
Keri has now been the executive director of Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity for seven years. She leads this organization with determination and passion, and the love that was visible during her job interview in 2014 is still visible today.
“I love a lot of things about Habitat. But I think the thing I love the most is knowing that every night, hundreds of kids are safer,” Keri said. “I love our Habitat kids.”
One of her most vivid memories from the last seven years is watching a three-year old member of a Habitat family walking in his yard and feeling grass on his bare feet for the first time. She says she can still see him laughing with joy. Another favorite moment is when the daughter of a Habitat homeowner sang at a Habitat volunteer appreciation event, and thanked all of the volunteers for building her and her mom a home.
“Those are the moments that I hold deep in my heart,” Keri said. Those are the moments that keep Habitat’s mission in focus for her.
“I’ve met so many incredible people. They drive me to want to do this. But I think the thing that really solidifies it for me is that we have a tangible opportunity to solve an actual problem. And Habitat for Humanity is a solution to a huge problem that most people take for granted. We get to do that. It’s humbling. It’s super humbling,” she said. “It’s a legacy solution. We’re not just solving the problem of the person who’s purchasing the house then– we’re creating a cycle. We’re creating a legacy. We’re creating financial stability and opportunity, but we’re also allowing that wealth to be distributed later on in life. And we’re teaching kids that you don’t have to go from place to place, you don’t have to live in scary neighborhoods. The likelihood of the children of our homeowners being homeowners themselves triples.”
Our affiliate has been transformed by Keri’s hard work and passion for serving families in Rockford. We are so grateful for her leadership and the way she has dreams big for this organization. Thank you, Keri, and congratulations on seven years at Rockford Habitat!