After several decades of leading Trident United Way (TUW), CEO and President Christopher Kerrigan is retiring this spring.
“I’m proud to be able to say after 21 years we’ve been able to reach out and meet the needs of people who really need the help the most,” Kerrigan said.
Kerrigan served in various roles for United Way in Raleigh, Asheville and Washington, D.C. before becoming the CEO and president of TUW in 1998. He’s worked for United Way for a total of 32 years and will celebrate his retirement on his anniversary of joining TUW on April 1. He recalls what the organization was like when he first moved to Charleston.
“We were a relatively small organization at that point. We only had about 14 employees, now we’ve got about 35 employees,” Kerrigan said. “Over the time period we’ve raised about $165 million to support programs and services to help people in our three-county region. Last year alone 150,000 people were touched by a funded program or service by Trident United Way.”
Kerrigan was born in Boston and grew up in Cleveland. He has lived in Mount Pleasant since he took the position with TUW. He joked that his children have lived a much better life growing up in Mount Pleasant than what he experienced in Cleveland.
He will celebrate his 32nd wedding anniversary with his wife Beth on April 30. The couple met while he was working in Washington, D.C. for an organization called Close Up just before starting at United Way. Beth was getting her MBA at George Washington University at the time.
Together they raised three children in Mount Pleasant. All three children attended Mount Pleasant Academy and Moultrie Middle School. The eldest two graduated from Wando High School and his youngest currently attends Academic Magnet.
When Kerrigan moved to the area he said there were only three houses on Daniel Island. He also recalls being at the groundbreaking ceremony of Towne Centre where people openly whispered ‘who’s going to come this far to go shopping?’
“Now we look at how thriving Towne Centre is and it has come to be the center of Mount Pleasant,” Kerrigan said.
United Way (UW) has played a major role in the Kerrigan family for several generations. His father spent 42 years with United Way, spending approximately 15 years as the CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland. Kerrigan’s mother ran a United Way funded program called Childcare Resource & Referral. His oldest daughter has also shown interest in United Way, serving on the Public Policy Committee at United Way Worldwide in Washington, D.C.
“I saw it not only from my father’s administrative side, but I also saw it from my mom’s program service side,” he said.
Kerrigan said that he was always interested in public policy and thought he’d work on Capitol Hill. He went to college at St. Michael’s College in Burlington, Vt. where he also volunteered for United Way. When UW offered him a job, he turned it down because he didn’t want to just be known as Bill Kerrigan’s son.
“But, he announced his retirement and I went back to him and said dad, you know I’ve always been interested in this. Do you have any advice,” Kerrigan recalled.
He ended up taking a temporary UW position in Baltimore making $500 a month. That temporary position led into a full-time job that guided him toward where he is today.
“The (TUW) vision is collectively how do we come together to meet the needs of individuals and families. How do we make the systematic changes necessary,” Kerrigan said.
During his leadership, Kerrigan established an endowment for Trident United Way. Valued at $5.1 million today, TUW’s endowment supports staff and community programming in addition to cementing the organization’s foundation long after his retirement.
Kerrigan explained that you don’t have to look very far and see there are some real challenges that people face in this community. Whether people don’t meet the educational standards, they don’t have the financial stability or they have a health issue and don’t have health insurance.
Kerrigan said the number one reason a family goes into bankruptcy in the United States today is because of an unforseen medical bill.
“It is almost impossible for one individual to truly make a change. As it’s almost impossible for one company to truly make change. But when you come together, we can all make positive change,” he said.
High school graduation rates in the area have increased from 69 percent to 85 percent in the 21 years Kerrigan has been with TUW. He said that this community needs to prepare children for the innovative and high tech employment opportunities that are moving to this area.
Kerrigan said he is going to miss the incredible staff and volunteers at TUW. He admired the unique ability this position has given him to be involved in a variety of interactions that touched so many lives and activities.
“It’s because we have a very, very committed community. This community I would say is a big city, small town in the sense you can really get your hands around it. I don’t know how you solve the problems of New York City or Los Angeles, but people here pull together and help one another and we’ve seen it time and time again,” Kerrigan said.
He recalled how the community came together as one through Hurricane Matthew, the year of flooding, the AME Church tragedy, the fire at the Super Sofa store, and many other hardships.
“It’s an amazing community. When you meet with the mayor, the superintendent of schools, business leaders, donors, teachers; everybody’s trying to do the right thing and work together,” he said.
“Chris’ role is to know exactly what’s going on in the community and who we need to pull in to help make those decisions and guide the direction so this can be a relevant force in the community,” said Caroline Morris, the Marketing & Communications manager for TUW.
Kerrigan says that even though you look at Mount Pleasant as a very vibrant economic area, there are still children living in poverty. He recalls speaking to former Wando principal, Lucy Beckham, when his children attended and at that time about 20 percent of the students were at or below federal poverty lines.
He explains that TUW is committed to serving the tri-county area, including the East Cooper community. TUW funds the dental assistance program for people in need at East Cooper Community Outreach.
“We know dental is a huge medical issue and it’s one of the things people can usually afford the least,” Kerrigan said.
TUW also funds 211, a number anyone can call at any time to speak to a live operator. Kerrigan says anybody in the area can call this if they’re experiencing a drug or alcohol problem, quality child care, parents need hospice care or whatever the crisis may be. The live operator will direct them to a local service or program that can help. TUW collects a local database of all services and programs in the community so they can directly refer people to the right place through this hotline.
One of Kerrigan’s favorite days of the year is Day of Caring, an 18-year tradition that brings nonprofits, schools and thousands of volunteers together on one day to improve the community. He explains that the first one on July 31, 2000 helped 18 companies and had 175 volunteers. He said everyone believed this is a great idea but it’s too hot, so they moved it to the second Tuesday in September. In 2001, the United States suffered a terrorist attack during their Day of Caring event on Sept. 11. They carried on the event for the next 10 years branded as a Day to Remember. After the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 they moved the event to the Friday before Thanksgiving, which fell on National Philantropy Week. Kerrigan said they moved the event out of the middle of hurricane season and people could kick off their holiday season by giving back. In 2018, they had 5,200 volunteers and 278 projects completed on Day of Caring.
He said that he is committed to a lifetime of service and giving back to the community. TUW is a partner agency for Lowcountry Food Bank, which serves the entire region. Kerrigan hopes to continue to give back in the Lowcountry through his retirement.
“A special thanks to the community for letting me be a part of their lives. For letting me into their living rooms, or letting me celebrate their weddings or letting me be a part of their sorrow loss of loved ones. It’s a very people oriented community and that’s what I love best about it,”Kerrigan added.
Trident United Way announced their new CEO on Jan. 7. Chloe Knight Tonney started last week taking over Kerrigan’s role for the organization.