When Kelly Harris saw a job opening in the Conklin Center for the Blind, she knew this was the job for her — so much that she picked up her life in New York City and moved down to Ormond Beach.
“Everything about it just felt right to me," Harris said, who is now the center's new president and CEO.
The Conklin Center, located in Daytona Beach, aims to help adults who are blind or visually impaired and have additional disabilities become independent through one-on-one residential and vocational training, and lifelong support services. It is the only facility of its kind in the U.S., and has serviced over 500 individuals with an 85% success rate since it opened in 1979.
From 2017-2018, it helped 100 adults through its supported living and employment trainings, placing 31 in work experiences and 11 into unsubsidized employment.
The Conklin Center's mission spoke to Harris. She was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness in children, at five months old.
She's had about five surgeries in her life because of it, and is thankful her parents brought her to a doctor in Washington, D.C., who she said was a pioneer in his field.
“I was very fortunate that I had him," Harris said. "You’d be hard-pressed to meet an adult my age with congenital glaucoma who is sighted.”
Her congenital glaucoma would spur her into the trajectory of her career, though before arriving at the Conklin Center, she said it wasn't something that was part of the conversation. Harris worked in health issues across the public, private and nonprofit sectors.
She worked in the White House within its Council on Environmental Quality, and then became part of the late U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum's staff. Harris moved to L.A. and worked in the HIV/AIDS issue, and then went back to New York City and helped raise awareness of childhood immunization and the measles epidemic.
Still, she wanted to bring something tangible to the table at the Conklin Center, she said. So when staff began planning for its 40th-anniversary gala on March 21, she knew they had to do something meaningful. And she knew what that could be.
Harris' 20-year-old son studied piano performance and composition in Juilliard, and is now at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. She's remained in contact with her son's first piano teacher, Aldo Ragone, who is a classical pianist from Rome, Italy.
When she heard about the center's 40th-anniversary gala, she called him. Ragone answered, and asked her how she was doing in New York City.
"I said, ‘I’m not in New York City, I’m in Daytona,'" Harris recalled.
"Where's Daytona?" Ragone asked her.
"Daytona Beach," she said.
"Oh, with the palm trees and the race cars," Ragone said.
As soon as she explained the Conklin Center's mission, and asked him to perform at the gala, Ragone told her he would be there.
Despite her career experiences, Harris said she had to pay attention and learn a lot when she arrived at the Conklin Center in October 2018. She shadowed past President and CEO Robert Kelly for that month. Kelly had been with the Conklin Center for almost 30 years, 18 of which he worked as its president and CEO.
That is almost unheard of in the nonprofit world, Harris said. But she quickly found out why Kelly, and a lot of the center's staff, have dedicated their lives to the Conklin Center.
“You come in and you’re just engaged with the mission," Harris said. "It’s like family with our students who are doing remarkable things.”