Phil Acord, President & CEO of Chambliss Center for Children, celebrates a rare work milestone this year: 50 years with one organization. After a brief stint elsewhere early in his career, he landed at Chambliss and found his passion in leading an organization dedicated to strengthening families and helping children be successful. In 2022, the agency celebrates 150 years of service. Acord has been a leader at Chambliss for a third of that time. Here he shares about his career of giving back.
Tell me about your time with Chambliss Center. What was the progression like to where you are now?
I started working with the Juvenile Court in 1966 and I was frustrated because I felt like I didn’t have the ability to impact the lives of the young men I worked with. I said ‘I want go somewhere I can really make a difference in the lives of families.’
I reported to work Nov. 11, 1971 as the Associate Director at what is now Chambliss Center for Children, and on Jan. 1, 1977, I became the Executive Director. We had about 90 children back then, 26 staff members and our annual budget was about $190,000. Today, we’re taking care of over 750 children a day, we have over 300 staff members and a $6,000,000 budget just at our main campus.
What have been the biggest highlights of your time at Chambliss Center?
During our first capital campaign for the gym building in the late 1980s, we had a waitlist of over 700 children for our childcare program. We literally went from caring for 90 children to over 300 children by the end of the 80s. Being able to get the support of the Board and community to expand the center and help more children and families was the highlight of my first 25 years.
The thing I’m most proud of after that is our shared service model. We created a model without even knowing we were doing it. We created this standard of collaboration that was written up and became a model for the nation. The first collaboration was the Emergency Shelter in 1983. Then, in 1986, we assumed responsibility for Maurice Kirby Child Center. We added several other partnerships over the next two decades including one with the school system to care for the children of school staff.
Was it your plan to work with Chambliss for the rest of your career?
When you love what you do, it becomes part of you. I can honestly say that I look forward to coming to work every day. For 36 years, my wife Paulette worked with me here as Director of Volunteers. It was nice to be able to work as a team. I enjoy the challenges and opportunities. I take a lot of satisfaction in knowing that we’ve helped literally thousands and thousands of children, and I’m fortunate to be part of that.
Throughout my life, I’ve been offered different jobs along the way at the local, regional, or national levels, but I am happy where I am. I like Chattanooga. I love my job, and I’m not really interested in going anywhere else and doing anything else. Time gets lost in the process when you wake up every day and keep wanting to make things better for families and children.
What’s your career advice to early and mid-career professionals?
Find something you love and do it. I know people have to have jobs and make money to support their families, but it’s difficult for me to think about going through life just working to make a living. I hear people talk about retirement and looking forward to not having to work. It almost makes me sad. I hate to think life is like a drudgery where you go through the motions and plot for when you don’t have work anymore.
Don’t chase the dollars or the title. If your job doesn’t bring you satisfaction and you don’t enjoy getting up and going to work, you need to find out what you love and how to make a living doing that.
I imagine that in a career you’re passionate about, it’s hard to retire because you love your work. Any advice for people struggling with how to decide when to step back?
When you’ve been with an agency for a long time, you know all the working parts, you surround yourself with knowledgeable staff and you have loved ones looking out for you, you have to be sensitive to little messages. Sometimes, you see hints along the way that make you realize it’s time to step aside and hand it over to someone else.
The bottom line is if you love what you do, the mission and the services you provide, your interest always lies in what will help the agency grow. Sometimes, you come to the conclusion that it can only happen when there’s someone else at the helm.
I always say ‘it’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.’ I feel good about what has been accomplished, but I also feel good about what’s going to be accomplished with Katie Harbison as CEO working with a great staff, the support of the community and best governing board of any agency in Chattanooga. We’re celebrating our 150th year providing services to families and children in 2022 and we will continue to do so well into the future.