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Deborah Knight-Kerr

Born: July 15, 1944, Tarboro, N.C.
Education: B.A., Century University, Albuquerque, N.M. (distance learning).
Career Highlights: Secretary, pediatrics outpatient unit; assistant to the president, JHH.
Current Position: Director, Human Resources, Community and Education Projects, JHH.
Community Boards: Baltimore City Workforce Investment Board; Trustee: Baltimore City Community College Foundation, Institute of Notre Dame, Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation, One to One/The National Mentoring Partnership and Policy Council.
Family: Married for 15 years to Judson Kerr; one son, three stepchildren.
Hobbies: Reading; traveling with friends and family.


Deborah Knight-Kerr: Career Champion

Deborah Knight-Kerr built a hospital career from the ground up. Now she’s helping others do the same.

She was a secretary in pediatrics hoping to move up to administrative assistant, but in her bid to find a new job, she’d endured four rejections. Then, another position became available—in the president’s office, no less. She was undaunted. “I thought, Let the president turn me down!”

That was back in 1978, and ever since, Deborah Knight-Kerr has been on a slow but steady rise to her current position as director of Community and Education Projects at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. For more than 10 years, she has helped develop programs that introduce young people to hospital careers and advance entry-level employees up the career ladder.

With demand for health care workers projected to rise, programs like these are more significant than ever before. Some have paved the way for the Department of Labor’s recent multimillion-dollar JH Health System grant, which is geared to training employees for the health care jobs of the future.

“During the last two years, it’s been challenging to find workers for skilled and lower-level jobs,” explains Ron Peterson, president of Hopkins Hospital and Health System. Knight-Kerr’s programs “not only improve the hospital’s relationships with workers and the community, they are key to recruitment efforts,” he says. “Deborah gives a human face to the institution in a way people relate to. She, herself, is a great example of an in-house success story.”

A critical stepping stone in that success was, in fact, that first job interview with hospital president Robert Heyssel. Knight-Kerr had studied diligently for the encounter, but it was most likely a personal exchange at the end of the interview that propelled her above the other candidates. She had been a patient at the hospital earlier and had received a letter signed by Heyssel welcoming her to the hospital.

“I felt this was just terrific,” Knight-Kerr recalls from her comfortable, spacious office in Phipps, “so I wrote him a thank-you note. When the interview was over, I told him about it.”

Now she says, flashing a broad smile, as sparkling as the stylish gold earrings she wears, she knows that letter was one of hundreds sent out by the patient relations department. But Heyssel must have appreciated the personal connection: She was hired the next day.

While working for Heyssel, Knight-Kerr took courses for her college degree. Earlier, after graduating from high school, she had enrolled at Morgan State but had been forced to withdraw when scholarships failed to materialize. Now, however, she could use the hospital’s tuition benefits to pay for her education.

Heyssel, meanwhile, recognized his young employee’s potential, and when a vacancy occurred, he made her his executive assistant. “She had a delightful, quiet personality, and she could relate to all kinds of people,” recalls Edward Halle, senior vice president emeritus. “Heyssel was giving her all sorts of responsibility and pushing her beyond her expectations.”

In 1993, Heyssel made her director of the Hospital Youth Mentoring Program, a national initiative that exposed disadvantaged high school students to hospital careers. Knight-Kerr had some experience. She herself had volunteered as a mentor and occasionally brought kids to her office to show them that they didn’t have to be a doctor or a nurse to work in an academic medical center. She has a son who is mentally retarded and has always taken a keen interest in young people. “I want to see kids be as much as they can be,” she says.

Over the next four years, under Knight-Kerr’s leadership, the Hospital Youth Mentoring Program gained $2.7 million in support from the Commonwealth Fund, a national philanthropy based in New York, and spread to 15 other academic medical centers. It became a national model in the difficult job of recruiting candidates for the jobs with critical shortages at hospitals.

It’s one of a number of initiatives Knight-Kerr developed over the last 10 years to “grow our own” workers and provide them with the skills and confidence to move up the ladder as she did. Skills enhancement classes, for example, help entry-level employees learn basic on-the-job skills. Through the STEP program, employees earn certificates for specific jobs. Through LINC, they train for nursing careers while still earning a paycheck.

Knight-Kerr also has organized partnerships with schools in high-poverty areas to acquaint students with job opportunities. One, with nearby Tench Tilghman Elementary School, has led to the creation of a career-activity program geared to fourth-graders. Each month of the school year, hospital employees go to the school to talk about the training, duties and commitment required of their particular careers. This year’s program culminates in three days this spring when the whole fourth grade is treated to an insider’s tour of the hospital on their Career Day at Hopkins.

“When Deborah comes to the school, she tries to spend as much time as possible with the children in the classroom,” says Charletta Logan-Generette, Tench Tilghman principal. “She wants to see the front-line impact.”

Why is Knight-Kerr so relentless in pursuing opportunities for others? “I've worked hard,” she says. “I want people to know that if you give your best, someone will recognize that, and you'll reap the rewards. For nonbelievers, I can be a role model. That’s why I like to tell my story.”

Lavinia Edmunds



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