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Cleveland: Building Bridges

Fourteen years ago, Reston's landscape was changing. More businesses and buildings were being built up, while more trees were being cut down. The tension was palpable, as residents and newly-arrived businesses eyed each another with mutual distrust.

To bridge the divide between the business community and Reston residents, Karen Connell Cleveland helped create the Best of Reston awards to honor the businesses and Restonians who have done the most for the community. Cleveland, then the executive director of the Reston Chamber of Commerce, used the event to raise funds for the non-profit Reston Interfaith.

"That first year, there was so much distrust on both sides," Cleveland recalled. "But we forged ahead."

FOR HELPING to unite Reston residents and businesses under the common ideals of the community, and also for her extensive work helping the less fortunate, Cleveland was named as a 2004 recipient of the Best of Reston awards.

As executive director of the chamber of commerce, Cleveland also helped develop other lasting institutions to promote Reston business, such as the annual Business EXPO, which draws hundreds of businesses together to network.

During her tenure running the organization, from 1988 to 1995, Cleveland managed the chamber's growth from 400 to 800 members. She is also credited with having establishing the chamber's first professional staff and with creating revenue generating programs that still sustain the organization today.

These days, Cleveland is executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia, a non-profit organization that has built more than 46 homes for low-income citizens throughout the region.

Her work at Habitat, Cleveland said, lets her fulfill her passion — helping families and children. By living in a stable environment, research shows that children are less likely to get in trouble and are more inclined to go to college, she said.

"My heart has always been with the kids and the families," she said.

Cleveland oversees nine professional staff members, and around 8,000 volunteers — many of whom help work on the houses every week, said Bart Tucker, president of Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia's Board of Directors.

Despite such a massive group of workers, Cleveland has no problem getting the job done efficiently and compassionately, Tucker said.

"I'm always impressed with how she handles difficult situations," he said. "She's respectful, but direct and never overwhelming. She gives someone pride at having accomplished something."

CLEVELAND EXCELS at raising funds from the Northern Virginia business community, a skill that has benefited both Habitat for Humanity, but also her other major non-profit undertaking, the Reston YMCA.

When Cleveland moved to Reston from Cincinnati in the early 1980s, she noticed a conspicuous absence of the large YMCA facilities she had loved in Ohio. So, when a parcel of land became available across from Target on Sunset Hills Drive, Cleveland jumped at the chance to build a large-scale YMCA gym and community center.

In 2000, the state-of-the-art facility opened, largely because of Cleveland's diligent fundraising efforts.

YMCA is more of a service organization than just a fitness club, Cleveland said, providing child care and summer camp for local youngsters.

"It's really the kids that drive us here and that's what we try to focus on," she said.

Part of the YMCA mission is to provide these programs to families and children of all income-levels, Cleveland said, so each year the Reston YMCA holds a black-tie dinner. Last fall, the gala raised $100,000 for the Building Bridges campaign that funds YMCA camp scholarships.

"It now has a reputation of being such a fun event that we have to kick people out at the end of the night," she said.

Joe Ritchey, who sits on the Reston YMCA Board and is president of Friends of Reston for Community Projects, Inc., credited Cleveland with much of the success of the Building Bridges campaign.

"Nobody at the Y gets turned away because they can't afford it, and that's because of this Building Bridges campaign and that's because of Karen," Ritchey said.