We can always do more: An interview with Jeff Carr

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After living in Los Angeles for nearly 30 years, Jeff Carr and his wife, Wendy, packed their belongings and moved to Portland, Oregon.

Jeff was leaving a job he loved as chief-of-staff to the mayor of Los Angeles and a community center both he and Wendy had deeply invested in, the Bresee Foundation. They both felt the timing was right, so he accepted the position of CEO of Albertina Kerr (Kerr), a non-profit organization working with children and adults with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges.

During the first few weeks on the job at AK, while Jeff was conducting standard learning tours of the organization, someone mentioned in passing that an employee on staff was homeless.

“I was in complete and utter shock,” Jeff said, relaying the story to me.

The more he learned, the more Jeff became unsettled by an even more disturbing discovery: there were numerous employees on staff who were also homeless.

“I didn’t move 1,000 miles from LA to Oregon to run an organization where homelessness was just OK,” he said.

In the next 48 hours, Jeff experienced a non-stop churning inside him. If he and Wendy were still back in LA, they could have made two phone calls and easily found these employees a place to live. In a new town, where they knew very few people, Jeff found himself without immediate solutions and in a state of restlessness.

At 4 a.m. one morning shortly after, he decided to go for a run. He couldn’t stop thinking about the woman on staff at Kerr whose five children were living with her in a tent—a woman who had done nothing wrong, who was working hard to provide for her family and yet remained homeless. Images began flashing in his mind of the exploited soldiers after WWI and WWII, living in shanty towns, surrounded by substandard living environments. Jeff began thinking about how history has taught us repeatedly that without a stable workforce, it’s impossible to have a thriving organization.

“That was my lightbulb moment … I knew I had to figure out a way to build housing for our employees,” Jeff said.

The next morning Jeff greeted his assistant and told her he’d found a solution: Kerr was going to build workforce housing.

“How are we going to do that?” she asked.

“I have no idea, but we’re gonna figure it out,” Jeff said.

There have been no more than four moments like this in Jeff’s life where he puts a stake in the ground and will not—under any circumstances—be persuaded to move it. Building workforce housing for his employees was one of them. Another was establishing an after-school non-profit organization in the East Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles.

A bike, a basketball and a gym

In the late 1980s, Jeff began recognizing that youth in the area needed a safe place to go after school, something to keep them from engaging in gang activity and other negative behavior. With a bike and a basketball, Jeff went into the neighborhood and began inviting some of the neighborhood kids to join him in pick-up games of basketball. People around him said he was crazy—that the risk was too high. Jeff pressed on anyways.

“All we had was a ten-speed bicycle, a basketball and a gym,” Jeff said. “But within six weeks of starting the program, kids starting coming to be in a safe place where they found people who cared about them.  It was the humble beginnings of putting another stake in the ground.” 

The program’s reputation began to grow and in 2001, after raising $2.5 million, Bresee purchased and renovated a 15,000-square-foot facility. Pick-up basketball games had grown into a full-fledged community center providing a myriad of services for low-income kids and families. Now an anchor institution for the neighborhood, Bresee offers academic tutoring, arts and STEM workshops, career and college preparation, as well as workforce preparation.

Bringing inclusivity to mental health care in Oregon

Today, Jeff serves as the CEO of AK, drawing upon his “can do” attitude as well as his experiences as the Chief Operating Officer of the 2015 Special Olympics.

“I want to break through the stigma around mental health,” Jeff said. “I heard a lot at the Special Olympics about neurological diversity—how we’re all a little different, but each of us brings different gifts and talents to relationships and the world as a whole. I really like that approach—it’s much more inclusive.”

Right now Kerr runs 52 group homes in the state of Oregon and is known for having positive outcomes and passing licensing checks with flying colors. Jeff sees that as the least Kerr can do and hopes the organization will be known in the future as a premier national destination for long-term mental health care. In 2019, Kerr is planning on adding a fifth six-bed crisis psychiatric care unit that will focus on crisis stabilization for kids with a “dual diagnosis” (developmental disability and mental health challenge).  It will be the first targeted program of its’ kind in the Pacific Northwest. 

We can always do more

Whether it was access to education, living in a neighborhood that wasn’t devastated by violence, or having adequate housing while working a fulltime job, Jeff’s life has been guided by a deep conviction that we can always find ways to give more to the people around us.

For the kids in Los Angeles, Jeff focused on helping them see that the world was bigger than their neighborhood. More than 20 years later, approximately 20 percent of the employees on staff at Bresee were once part of the after-school program. While Albertina Kerr now has a plan and is in the fundraising stage to build 120 units of workforce housing, they have established an employee assistance fund to help their employees who may find themselves in a vulnerable situation and need some help.

“When you’re born in the ‘wrong’ zip code or born with the ‘wrong’ skin color, sometimes that becomes your limitation,” Jeff said. “Most of the time people just need to see that something else is possible in their lives.”