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John Records passing baton at COTS

John Records, executive director of Committee on the Shelterless for 21 years, is stepping down at the end of June. Mike Johnson, who is currently chief operating officer, will be taking his place.

Scott Manchester/ For the Argus-Courier
Published: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 7:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 4:12 p.m.

On a recent morning, John Records stood smiling in the sun outside the Mary Isaak Center, the model homeless shelter that he helped build, arm around the man to whom he's preparing to pass the torch of leading the Committee on the Shelterless.

The change of guard comes as COTS, one of Petaluma's most respected institutions, turns 25 and receives national recognition for its innovations in ending the cycle of homelessness.

Records has led the organization for 21 years, guiding it from a fledgeling group that operated mainly out of church basements to a national leader in ending homelessness that has success rates about twice the national average. At the end of June, he will step down as executive director and turn over his leadership responsibilities to Mike Johnson, who has managed day-to-day operations as chief operating officer since 2010.

Records, who turns 63 in June, said a confluence of events led to his decision to step down as COTS' leader. One is that he'll be co-directing a new, national institute on homelessness called the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services. The institute will be based out of the University of New York at Albany School of Social Welfare, which has worked closely with COTS in researching ways to end the cycle of homelessness.

“I'll be the Johnny Appleseed of COTS,” Records said with his signature, gentle smile on Monday as he and Johnson stood together to have their picture taken outside the Mary Isaak Center. The center was bustling with residents and volunteers coming and going, illustrating the fact that more than 20,000 people have received help from COTS since Records joined the organization.

Records is also leaving for personal reasons — he said he has long promised his wife that they would return to live near the Rocky Mountains, where she grew up. The couple will move to the small town of Paonia in Colorado, but will continue to spend their winters in Petaluma, allowing Records to maintain a presence on COTS' board of directors.

Records said that the thing that made his departure possible was Mike Johnson's readiness to step into his shoes.

Sitting together to talk about COTS' future, Records and Johnson both spoke unabashedly of lofty goals like ending homelessness in Petaluma and making miracles happen, such as ending the cycle of homelessness for a family that has struggled with the issue for generations.

Such talk is welcomed by community leaders who say COTS has demonstrated time and time again that it can be both high-minded and practical.

“He's a visionary,” said Marilyn Segal, executive director of the Petaluma Community Foundation, of Records, who she described as a mentor. “One of the many reasons I'm a supporter of COTS is because integrity infuses every aspect of that organization. They have a belief in the resiliency of people and offer programs that ensure that the person being helped assumes responsibility.” And, she added, “they're effective!”

“He's taken the organization to a level that could not have been imagined,” said Tim Kellgren, pastor of Elim Lutheran Church, one of the first churches to offer up bed space when COTS was founded. He said one of his proudest accomplishments was being on the board that first hired Records as executive director.

For Records, the feeling seems to be mutual.

“Coming to COTS was one of the very best things that ever happened to me,” he said on Monday. Records, once a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, first got involved with COTS as a volunteer about 23 years ago, not long after the organization was founded by Mary Isaak and Laure Reichek, who were concerned about Petaluma's homeless.

“I couldn't believe that, in this wealthy, caring community, there were kids sleeping in cars,” he said. Before long, he began to volunteer with his wife Glena and two young daughters. When the part-time executive director position opened, Records put his hat in the ring and was hired.

Records added that he was drawn to the work in part because his parents struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, which he said “prepared me to be confident with people experiencing challenges in their lives.” Through his own difficult childhood experiences, he learned that “a person is more than a problem — you have to support a person in body, mind and spirit.”

Records told a Petaluma audience in 2006 that he had “been made whole again” through his work helping others at COTS.

Johnson, who also came to COTS through a difficult personal journey, said it was with “equal parts excitement, honor, and a little bit of terror,” that he would be filling Records' shoes.

“It's sad to see John (leave), but I've put my heart and soul into the organization for the last 14 years,” he said.

Johnson started working at COTS in 1999. Before that, he was a client of the organization, having lived on the streets of Petaluma for eight years. At age 38, Johnson decided he had a choice to make — either change or remain homeless indefinitely. He started as a cook at a winter homeless shelter and soon made a commitment to staying hired and sober. He was eventually appointed manager of the Ellwood Opportuntiy Center. “That's where things began to change for me,” he said. “I discovered I had a knack for managing.”

At about the same time that Johnson joined COTS, the organization entered a period of “explosive growth,” said Records.

In 2004, the Mary Isaak Center was built and shortly after that Johnson became the manager, which is when Records and Johnson began working closely together.

“Mike and COTS have grown together,” Records said. “Mike is living proof of the power of COTS to transform lives.”

Together, they worked with others at COTS and beyond to craft the organization's groundbreaking approach to ending homelessness by, as Records puts it, “rebuilding shattered lives.” That includes offering people the diverse services, like jobs training, counseling, and even meditation, they need to work their way out of homelessness while also holding them accountable for their actions.

This “whole-person approach” took shape when a major donor provided COTS with about $200,000 in seed funding to hone its approach to homelessness. Records said that the organization reviewed about 30 approaches to tackling the issue. Records and Johnson added to that with perspectives from their own lives.

“I know from my own experience how important a sense of hope is,” Johnson said. “It has to make sense or people won't do it.”

Nicole Preucil, a 23-year-old who experienced homelessness as a child and volunteered at COTS for two years, said she found the organization's comprehensive approach to healing people “mindblowing.”

“They saw beyond the basic needs of providing shelter to helping people become self-sufficient so they wouldn't be homeless again,” she said. “I was so moved because I'd never heard of anything like it.”

Johnson, who will turn 51 this month, became Chief Operating Officer in 2010, managing the day-to-day operations of the agency and implementing new, visionary programs such as the Integrity House Program, which places people in permanent, affordable housing. Johnson also developed the Kids First family shelter and a housing program for veterans.

Johnson said he hopes to maintain all of COTS' current programs and also heighten COTS' efforts to end homelessness in Petaluma by expanding the organization's ability to put people in permanent housing.

COTS' board president Chris Ranney expressed enthusiasm about Johnson's ability to continue Records' work. “We have every confidence in Mike Johnson to lead COTS well into the next 25 years,” he said.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)

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