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Weekend edition January 05, 2024 | Katelyn Keenehan

Knoxville Habitat for Humanity President retires after 30-year career

Knoxville Habitat for Humanity celebrates Kelle Shultz through a retirement reception held at PYA’s Knoxville office.

It’s been 30 years since Kelle Shultz first took a seat as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Knoxville Habitat for Humanity. She filled the role in 1994, just 10 years after the branch’s launch. When she started, three employees and volunteers had just completed their 48th home. Today, there are almost 40 employees who are soon to celebrate the 700th Habitat home in Knoxville.

It takes a special person to lead an organization through decades of growth and change.

Shultz first went on a Habitat trip in the 90s. Her friend convinced her to give up comfort, to sleep under the stars, make bricks, and build homes for people in the backcountry of Nicaragua.

“It was a very life-changing experience. I came back to Knoxville and thought wow, I was just so blessed to be born here,” Shultz said.

She volunteered for the organization back in Knoxville, but gravitated more toward administration and leadership, versus the manual skills of building the home. When she saw a position open to lead the Knoxville office, she jumped at the opportunity.

“My greatest strength is having relationships and connections,” she said. “People kept calling wanting to donate, opportunities fell into our lap, and I’ve always said the growth has been a God thing.”

Of course, over a 30-year career, it hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows.

Tough times in real estate directly impacted Shultz’s ability to run an organization based around supplying homes.

“We are the only option for a lot of families in Knoxville, and sadly the resources just aren’t there to help everybody, especially when the housing market is tight,” she said.

In the 2000s, Shultz cited rises in real estate costs, including building materials, and the cost of land that made budgets tight, and normal operations difficult.

In some ways, she said it’s still like that in 2024. The only difference now is a community of supporters who are committed to the organization’s success.

Despite navigating a turbulent real-estate market, Shutlz said her biggest lesson over 30 years was learning to lead.

Rep. Tim Burchett honors Shultz contributions.

“Finding a balance of empowering people, motivating employees, catering to different communication styles, and learning to delegate was a learning curve for me,” she said. “But I do feel strongly about the work I’ve done. I’ve held people accountable; I’ve held families accountable, and moved the mission forward in the best way I knew how.”

Despite challenges, her passion to serve and change lives through the Habitat mission kept her going.

“I had a homeowner once tell me, ‘My life is better because of you, and I don’t ever want you to forget that,’” Shultz said. “I will never forget that. Those are the moments that make it all worth it.”

After 30 years, Schultz has retired from her position with the Knoxville Habitat for Humanity organization but plans to still be involved as a volunteer. About a hundred people attended her celebratory retirement reception on Thursday evening at PYA’s Knoxville office.

PYA and Realty Trust Group (RTG) have been long-time supporters of Knoxville Habitat for Humanity, with Marty Brown, Mike Shamblin and Chad Simpson all serving on the Board. Both PYA and RTG have built homes for the organization.

“Kelle has been a treasure to this community, and to the original, beautiful mission of Habitat for Humanity,” Brown said.

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