Leaving the Parks & People Foundation is not something that President and Chief Executive Officer Jackie Carrera ever saw herself doing. For her, the job — leading an organization that helps to improve the quality of life in Baltimore's neighborhoods — has been the culmination of a career that began when she discovered her social conscience while taking an ethics class as a finance major at what is now Loyola University Maryland.
The class was debating homelessness.
"I said, 'What's there to debate?' "
Some classmates said people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
"I found myself becoming increasingly angry," said Carrera, now 46, of Roland Park. "My heart beat faster. My blood boiled. It was almost like a calling."
After earning her degree in finance in 1989, Carrera followed a career path that took her from working in a soup kitchen and outreach center for migrant workers in Colorado to community organizing for the now-defunct organization Maryland Save Our Streams.
Then, at 25, Carrera became director of Parks & People, founded in 1984 during Mayor William Donald Schaefer's administration to establish public-private partnerships on issues related to recreation and parks, from improving the environment to nurturing youth programs.
Carrera still hasn't lost her passion for the job and the organization's mission statement, "supporting a wide range of recreational and educational opportunities; creating and sustaining beautiful and lively parks; and promoting a healthy natural environment for Baltimore."
Parks & People, based in the old Stieff Silver building in Wyman Park, has grown from an annual budget of $400,000, when she first took the reins, to $6.7 million, with a full- and part-time staff of 571, compared to only her and some interns and contract workers in 1993.
Parks & People receives local, state and federal funding, plus private donations and foundation grants .
The job combines Carrera's business acumen and love of community service.
"I ended up really appreciating my degree in finance. It gave me an education in (business) fundamentals and strategically growing to ensure financial sustainability," she said.
Under Carrera's leadership, Parks & People has done everything from restoring the original Druid Hill Park superintendent's house as the Sally and Butch Michel Center for Parks and People to starting a SuperKids camp that she said has served 23,000 children and is now a model for a similar program run by Baltimore City Public Schools.
"You're talking to someone who has skipped to work every day for 21 years," she said. "I can't even imagine not being part of this."
But soon, she will moving on, to Los Angeles, where her husband, David, now associate vice president of the Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine, has accepted a new job as vice president for health sciences development for the Keck School of Medicine and the Keck Hospital at the University of Southern California.
"It's his turn to take the next step in his career," Jackie Carrera said.
She announced her decision to her staff and board of directors earlier this month.
"There wasn't a dry eye," said Parks & People spokeswoman Erica Mechlinski.
Carrera said she has no new job lined up yet and will move in August to get her family settled, then telecommute to Parks & People until she leaves at year's end.
Raffa, a nonprofit transition and search firm will conduct an executive search for Carrera's successor, and Carrera plans to stay on through the transition.
She said her biggest accomplishments include working strategically with various agencies and community partners to raise and invest more than $65 million through public and private partnerships. The money has helped fund everything from parks and gardens to stormwater management facilities and the development of a national model for urban forestry.
Parks & People is also working with the city and the organization Tree Baltimore to plant trees in accordance with a city goal since 2006 of doubling Baltimore's tree canopy in the next 40 years. Parks & People also works on greening projects for vacant lots, schools and public housing.
It's partners and friends, according to its website, http://www.parksandpeople.org, range from the Abell Foundation and the city's Department of Planning to the Baltimore Orioles, the Walmart Foundation and many of north Baltimore's private schools and universities.
The most recent success story is the old Druid Hill Park house on 9 acres in the Mondawmin neighborhood. The structure had a collapsed slate roof and was overgrown with kudzu and ivy until Parks & People in 2012 began a $12.8 million project to restore it as a green building and future headquarters for the organization.
Carrera called it "a place to centralize" and to demonstrate the organization's commitment to the environment, as well as an investment in Druid Hill Park, "one of the city's greatest assets."
Now, Carrera is preparing to look for a new job, "if it doesn't find me first."
She is still getting used to the idea of leaving.
"I always said wild horses couldn't drag me away from Parks & People," she said. "If I thought there was a way to stay involved, I would."