When 15-year-old Ian Kennedy moved to Columbia from Crofton with his mother in 1992, he never could have predicted the impact he would have on his new community.
"Ian is a real Howard County success story," said County Executive Ken Ulman, Kennedy's former employer. "He loves Howard County and the community, and in a lot of ways, we share the same values."
Sitting inside the Lakeside Deli near the downtown Columbia lakefront recently, Kennedy recalled the move to Columbia.
"That was an interesting time to get uprooted to come here," Kennedy said. ""It was a pretty dramatic difference from what I knew in Crofton."
He added: "Those founding principles of Jim Rouse were evident immediately."
Today, 20 years after enrolling at Hammond High School, the 35-year-old Oakland Mills resident serves as the first director of communications for the Horizon Foundation, a Columbia-based nonprofit committed to solving health issues in Howard County. He started the job last in November, leaving behind his post as chief of staff with the county government.
Kennedy was a Rouse Scholar at Howard County Community College, where he fluctuated between majoring in physics, philosophy and religion.
"It was great," Kennedy said. "I could just take classes that were interesting and challenging; things that broadened my horizons."
Although Kennedy's academic interests oscillated, his interest in music, which he still maintains today, has always stayed true. In fact, it was this passion that led Kennedy to co-organize and form Save Merriweather, an organization that advocated for the preservation of the Columbia-based music venue.
After owner General Growth Properties announced plans to convert the venue into an smaller enclosed amphitheater, Kennedy, then a graduate student at the University of Maryland, and fellow Columbia resident Justin Carlson formed the group in the summer of 2003 after a casual conversation at a weekend barbecue.
"Growing up, both Justin and I went to shows at Merriweather. The first concert I went to was an Earth Day concert at Merriweather," Kennedy said. "It's this amazing place. You walk in and you are transported to a completely different world. I've been to a lot of concert venues, but there is not one like Merriweather."
Although Kennedy's passion lead him to the cause, it was his time as a newspaper reporter that taught him how to execute his vision.
After completing his undergraduate studies at UMBC, Kennedy took a reporting job covering the small community of Mount Airy. It was then that he began to understand the power of community organization.
"It was like a graduate course in community studies," Kennedy said. "I saw these people making changes in their community and I thought it was fantastic. It occurred to me I was interested in community affairs, and I wanted to get into the middle of it."
Kennedy recalled covering a Carroll County Board of Education budget hearing in 2001 where a group of teachers, upset about a salary freeze, showed him how an organized community can make a difference.
"I remember hearing all of the shuffling behind me in the high school auditorium, and this massive humanity stood up," Kennedy said. "It was this very real example of the power of organized people."
Kennedy returned home and told his girlfriend, now wife, Lena, how profoundly it affected him.
The teachers got their raise, and Save Merriweather had its man.
"I remember (from being a reporter) there were people who legitimized themselves as public groups by giving themselves a name," Kennedy said. "They had no real organized structure, but two guys and a name, and all of a sudden you're an organization."
It was through his effort with Save Merriweather that Kennedy caught the eye of Ulman, then a County Council member.
"I was really impressed with his enthusiasm for the issue," Ulman said. "He was willing to work hard to get his message out there. He knew social media, and the tools of communicating in the 21st century. That's why we were successful on the Merriweather Post Pavilion issue, we were able to communicate with people."
After Kennedy earned a graduate degree in public policy from the University of Maryland, Ulman, then the county executive, hired Kennedy in 2007 as an executive assistant on his staff.
"I was like, this is my dream job. I've been spending all my time volunteering for the county and now I can get paid to do it," Kennedy said.
One skill Kennedy said he developed during his years in county government was the ability to build community bridges.
"No one does anything on their own. It's all about partnerships and how you create those partnerships," Kennedy said.
During his brief time with the foundation, Kennedy has managed to foster a partnership with his former boss, as Ulman recently announced an executive order banning the sale of sugary drinks on county property at an Horizon Foundation campaign kickoff.
"Ian is a great fit at the Horizon Foundation," Ulman said. "It is a very special organization," he said, which will benefit with "somebody with his values."
Kennedy said he's excited about the new challenge, and looks forward to applying an entrepreneurial approach to his work with Horizon.
"I like the opportunity to build something," Kennedy said. "The Horizon Foundation is looking to make real and measurable impact on the community. They have a lot of big ideas, and it's exciting for me to help implement that new vision."