Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” If Emerson was alive today, he just might find the embodiment of this quote in Atlanta’s Camille Kelser. Camille is a leadership powerhouse with philanthropic flair, and both her professional and personal portfolios are thick with accomplishments. She has worked on two U.S. Congressional campaigns, served as both the Junior League of Atlanta president and president of the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences alumni board of directors, and she has held numerous board positions with the Woodruff Arts Center and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra … all while being a wife and mother to three daughters. Camille’s latest adventure as executive director of Rebuilding Together Atlanta, a nonprofit with a mission to preserve affordable housing, is proving to be one inspirational stop on her life’s map. With a heart for change and a skill for leadership, Camille’s journey is far from complete, and today she shares a peek at her work with us. Meet Camille Kesler, our FACE of Atlanta.
Your early days were spent in HR and in communications, and you even had several years working with two U.S. Congressional campaigns to develop a marketing and communications strategy. How have the skills you learned in those roles stuck with you today?
I think working in different areas has benefitted me greatly in skills development and growth. I try to use every experience as a learning opportunity. My work in human resources and communications has afforded me compassion for others and taught me how to connect with people of disparate backgrounds. We may have differences, but everyone wants safety. Everyone hopes for good health. Everyone wants what is best for their families. In many areas, people really are the same.
What drew you to Rebuilding Together Atlanta (RTA), of which you are now the executive director? What part of the mission speaks to you?
In the early 2000s I volunteered with RTA through the Junior League — my husband and I went and painted walls for an elderly homeowner. I remember how happy she was! She seemed more excited to have people in her home to talk to than by the actual renovation. I’m sure she was delighted by both, but some of these older adults don’t get visitors. Part of what RTA does is to remind homeowners that they are special and worthy of friendship and worthy of a conversation. That homeowner’s reaction to the work that RTA did for her has stayed with me all these years, and when I learned that RTA’s long-time executive director was retiring, I put my name forward, and here we are. Every time we help another homeowner, I get the same feeling that I did that first time I volunteered with RTA. That’s what the mission does. It makes you feel good because you know you’ve positively impacted someone’s life, and you not only get to see it, but you feel it through hugs and kisses and tears of joy.
Tell us more about RTA.
RTA is part of a national association of more than 130 affiliates that is committed to preserving and revitalizing low-income housing to help individuals and families live in safe and healthy homes. Here in Atlanta, we primarily help seniors to comfortably age in their own homes. Most of the people we help are older women who live alone. I look at some of these people and think that could be my grandmother. It really pulls at one’s heartstrings to know that despite a lifetime of helping others, some of these people don’t have anyone in their lives who can help them. I asked one homeowner why she wants to stay in her home and she said, “Because it’s mine. It’s all I have.” Just think, she has worked and saved her entire life to own her own house. At 89 years old and on a limited income of Social Security benefits, she cannot afford to maintain it, but she wants to live the rest of her life in her prized possession. I think it’s something anyone would understand.
Why is the organization an integral part of our community?
There is a huge need in Atlanta for affordable housing and help. Practically every day there are new articles in the newspapers and stories in the news about how low-income Atlantans are being squeezed out of neighborhoods and their homes from gentrification and high property taxes. Millions of dollars are spent beautifying neighborhoods and bringing much-needed parks and green space, but what is unfortunately getting lost in all of that is the human factor. People are struggling and need help. RTA is trying to help homeowners stay in their homes by making free home repairs so they don’t have to choose between food and medicine or paying to replace a leaking roof. Without our efforts, many of these recipients might continue to live in homes with moisture, mold or other hazardous conditions due to the cost, or lose their homes altogether.
RTA is celebrating its 25th year in a big way: rehabbing more than 25 low-income homes this year! What advice would you give to someone tackling a substantial, somewhat intimidating goal?
Excellent question because that’s what RTA’s goal is. It’s substantial and intimidating for your vision to be the end of substandard housing in Atlanta. But, that is our goal, and every day we work to move the needle forward in some small way. In fact, that’s what my advice would be: to make an effort to do something every single day that moves the needle, even if just a tiny bit. Do something every day that moves your mission forward. If you do, those days will collect into months and years of action and ultimately towards success.
In addition to your recent work with RTA, you’ve also served in multiple capacities for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Woodruff Arts Center. Where did your passion for the arts originate?
I love the arts! I wish I could say it’s because I am personally artistically inclined, but I’m not. I took violin lessons from 4th grade until I was a senior in high school. I basically played at the same level in 12th grade that I did in 4th. I was absolutely terrible, but the music was amazing! My mother used to play music on Saturdays during chores. We all had to do chores, and it helped to have loud music playing. This was back when you had albums. My mother would blast Beethoven, and then when that ended, she might put on Earth, Wind, and Fire, and then Queen. I loved it and have very eclectic tastes, which are entirely my mother’s fault. My love of the performing arts in general, which includes theater, comes from my father taking us to plays when we were younger. I rarely saw other children at the plays he took us to, but as a mom, my husband and I take our three daughters to performances and love the fact that more and more children are being exposed to the performing arts.
Many women would love to get involved in their community but don’t know where to start. How would you recommend diving in?
The Junior League is an excellent conduit to connect women to the community! They have a broad array of volunteer opportunities with many community partners. However, if someone has a particular interest, they can also call up any nonprofit that shares the same focus and volunteer directly. Most nonprofits have volunteer coordinators that would love to hear from them! Another good place to get your feet wet is with your alma mater. This year, I am serving as president of the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences alumni board of directors, and we have worked to recruit a diverse group to join the board and our volunteers’ committees, including recent graduates. I’m particularly excited that this year will constitute the 100th anniversary of FACS programming at UGA as well as the anniversary of when women were permitted to enroll in the college. So, we will have much to celebrate and plenty of opportunities for people to volunteer and get involved.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given?
The best advice I have received was to not respond in anger. Whether it’s email, a phone call or in person, find a way to give yourself time to cool off. It might be to turn off the computer, do some yoga or just go off the radar for a while. Do whatever you need to do to gain perspective to ensure that your response is one that you can be proud of. And, that you are always true to who you are, not a reflection or a reaction to others.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Well, of course those were exactly what my answer would have been! I cannot live without the knowledge that I am doing something to help someone else. I cannot live life without being busy. And, I cannot live without chocolate.
Thank you, Camille. And thanks also to Catrina Maxwell of CatMax Photography for today’s beautiful photography.
Read about even more inspiring Atlanta women in our FACES archives. Click here.