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.
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