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One Life's Adventure — Hope for Many

Mount Vernon Profile

When most people think about retirement and the place where they want to spend that time it revolves around leisure pursuits — anything but challenges. But then, most people are not Sharon Kelso.

On July 14, fittingly "Bastille Day" or France's Independence Day, she will officially step down as the executive director of United Community Ministries. She and her architect husband, Jack, are relocating to Las Vegas.

When asked why Las Vegas, her reply was vintage Sharon Kelso. "Because it's today's land of opportunity," she said. "We wanted to go somewhere new and have an adventure." Then she added, "And, you also don't have to shovel snow."

Kelso started with UCM is 1980 working for then executive director Eleanor Kennedy. In 1984 she became executive director upon Kennedy's retirement.

"My first task as executive director was to move the organization into this building on Labor Day weekend. We had been in a garage next to the old Groveton police station," she recalled.

"UCM was formed in 1969 and Herb Harris, then supervisor for Mount Vernon District, got the garage and arranged for us to rent it from the county. We also got this building through the county. They bought it and leased it to us," Kelso explained. Formerly the Hybla Valley area Post Office, UCM's headquarters is located at 7511 Fordson Road.

The only property owned by UCM is one Section 8 house. "We rent it to a very nice family. We can't ask others to do what we don't do ourselves." she said.

Throughout Kelso's 20 years at the helm of UCM the organization has grown from an employer of 20 to more than 100. This is no surprise to Marie Canny, president, UCM Board of Directors.

"Sharon has always been a great mentor to those who want to pursue a career in human services. She has been a motivational leader not only at UCM but also throughout the region," Canny said.

"When she became our executive director we had a budget of about $1 million. Now it is over $4 million. Sharon has always been able to discern trends and then develop programs to meet them. She's always been ahead of the curve," Canny said.

As an example she noted, "The Route 1 corridor is in constant change. You have to be out there to have relevant programs. Sharon did that."

Canny's assessment was buttressed by Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland. "Sharon has been a giant of a person in the delivery of services to those in need," he said.

"She's made an incredible contribution in the delivery of human services, not only here in Mount Vernon, but throughout Fairfax County. She has improved the lives of thousands of people both professionally and in a most humane way," Hyland said.

"She has truly left her mark on this community. And she has also left her heartprint on the people," he said.

UNDER KELSO'S stewardship, UCM's first big expansion was the Bryant Early Learning Center on Popkin Lane. "When we started Bryant we were serving 25 children. Now we serve 100 students and we are in partnership with Fairfax County schools," Kelso said.

"There is a special place in my heart for the Bryant Center. I guess it comes from my background as a teacher and my own struggles as a young working mother, not being able to find affordable, quality child care," she reflected. "I wanted to make sure families had the best care possible."

After BELC came the Health Care Clinic for the medically uninsured, according to Kelso. "We provided that service right here until the county opened three health care centers. We had all volunteer doctors and Inova Mount Vernon Hospital donated the equipment," Kelso explained.

As Kelso saw it, "This was a good way for UCM to bring a need to public attention and document it. That is what UCM does, identify and document need."

From there UCM expanded into transitional housing. "We once had 50 units. We now have 36 in partnership with the Community Services Board and the Department of Family Services. We serve both families and individuals," Kelso said.

"We don't just hang onto something just for the sake of hanging on. A prime example is our program for the elderly. The Fairfax County program does this now."

OTHER EXAMPLES of UCM community wide service cited by Kelso included:

*Hispanic Outreach. "We just hired our first bilingual staff member," she said.

*Micro Enterprize Program to provide training to low income self employed

*The recent opening of an employment center.

*Development of a computer training center in partnership with St. Louis Catholic Church.

*The Back Porch Thrift Store.

"Our computer classes are open to the entire community. But those who can pay on a sliding scale," Kelso said.

Something of great pride to Kelso is the fact that UCM was accredited by the Council on Accreditation in 1996. Since then, they have been reaccredited twice, she acknowledged.

"That was a big move for us. It took us from a grassroots mode of operation to a professional delivery system. But we have maintained our grassroots attitude," she added.

An example of that is one of Kelso's prime interests and concerns — child abuse and neglect. "It's a nationwide problem," she isaid.

THROUGH AN unprecedented collaboration of UCM with Fairfax County Department of Family Services, Department of Health, Northern Virginia Family Services and Reston Interfaith, a major effort to address the problem has been launched.

"Nobody has ever done anything this big before," Kelso said. "All these things address the need for people to become self sufficient."

Kelso grew up in South Florida. Her family moved there from Detroit during World War II. Her husband Jack's family moved to the same Florida locale from Uniontown, Penn., in the same timeframe. Her first teaching job was in Starke, Fla., working with the children of migrant workers.

Sharon and Jack eventually moved to Boone, N.C., where Jack opened his architectural firm and Sharon taught students from poor rural homes from 1974 to 1979. Then Jack took a job with the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C.

But that wasn't their first foray into the Washington metro area. In the 1960's, Jack was in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stationed at Fort Belvoir. "Our first child was born here. We have three daughters. Tracy, our oldest, now living in Kansas City, is a native Virginian and a social worker," Kelso said.

Their youngest daughter Carrie, lives in Los Angeles and Bonnie is an exhibit designer with the Smithsonian Institute and lives in Belle View. "Only Tracy is married. Her husband is with Sprint.

"That's how they ended up in Missouri with our only grandson. He's five," she noted. "Las Vegas is closer to Missouri than Virginia."

BUT THE MOVE to Las Vegas is not as far out as it may seem. The Kelso's have been vacationing there for the past 15 years. "We have many friends there and Jack is relocating his practice there," she said.

As for what Sharon is going to do, that's still up for debate. "I've thought about a lot of things. I've always wanted to write children's books. But I'm sure I'll be drawn into community work," she said.

That doesn't surprise Beverly Turner, vice president, Friends of UCM. "The thing I've always liked and admired about Sharon is that her job is not just her job. She has a passion for individuals. Helping others is in her sole," she said.

However, Kelso admitted, "Right now I'm looking for some down time. I need to retool. This has been pretty much of a 24/7 job for the last 24 years. But we still have two weddings in the future," referring to her two unmarried daughters. "So I guess I won't be quitting work anytime soon."

But in the true spirit of someone who has devoted their life work to the well being of others, Kelso credits the success of UCM under her leadership to "the staff, board, volunteers and our many partnerships. And,most importantly to the thousands of people throughout the community who give of their treasure."

According to Kelso it takes three things to make an organization such as UCM successful: time, talent and treasure.

"It is the treasure that allows the time and talent to be effective," she said. "It's never about who you are. It's about who you work with. And in this case, who works for you," she added.

"When you start messing around in somebody's life you better know what you are doing. That's why we pushed for accreditation," she said.

Kelso also sees a need for UCM to become more financially self sufficient to ensure the longevity of its mission. "We have to be as self sufficient as we encourage our clients to be.

"We have to become more business-oriented to replace the money lost from government cutbacks. And we must do it by not using any donations given for the benefit of our clients," she said.

As Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman pointed out during a ceremony by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on the announcement of her retirement, "She set the standard for raising and leveraging funds for the needy in this county. And we are much better for that today."

Hyland, who served on the search committee which selected Kelso for the job of UCM's executive director, summed up the feelings of the BOS that day by telling Kelso, "Your record in human services is unmatched. You have taken UCM to a new level of service. I'm going to miss you and your husband, who has stood by you. We love you for what you have done."