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DU Nonprofit Disabilities Initiative Places Director, Breaks New Ground

Chaz Kellem has never traded his wheelchair for a scull, yet he is a member of the board of directors for the Steel City Rowing Club in Verona.

Kellem, 24, is the first person to be placed on a board through a unique initiative of Duquesne University’s Boards-by-Design.

Kellem has used a wheelchair since the age of 6 because of osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bones. So far, he has tallied 47 broken bones and about 12 surgeries. But that’s not been enough to stop him from his work as an account executive with the Pittsburgh Pirates and, after work, from volunteering.

Kellem had served as a student representative on a technology board at Reizenstein Middle School in East Liberty. That was his only board involvement until earlier this year, when he connected with Boards-by-Design. Part of Duquesne’s Nonprofit Leadership Institute, Boards-by-Design seeks to strengthen area nonprofit boards through diversity. Its initiatives have focused on matching the talents of the young, minorities and women with appropriate organizations. In November, Boards-by-Design received a FISA Foundation grant to focus on placing those with disabilities on nonprofit boards.

“This initiative to tap the talents of people with disabilities is the first of its kind that we know of in the country,” said Allison Jones, director of Boards-by-Design. “Besides making placements and adding diverse voices to boards, an important part of this program is to increase awareness of disabilities. People with disabilities largely remain an untapped resource. We believe that including underrepresented groups on boards not only strengthens boards and their responsiveness to the community, but simply is the right thing to do.”

The initiative certainly caught Kellem’s attention. Through the program, he learned the expectations of board service, then weighed several requests from boards interested in his membership. “People with disabilities who are active in the community normally are asked to participate in other disabled groups, and I just didn’t want that,” Kellem said. “I wanted to see something where a group could use my marketing and sales background. I wanted the combination of being disabled and African-American to make an impact.”

Kellem started his two-year term with the Steel City Rowing Club in April. “They’ve been very accepting and understanding,” Kellem said. “They’ve made changes because the initial meeting place was not accessible. As a group, they understand my role. It’s a lot of marketing, a lot of sales, a lot of program design. They have only two staff members, so we created an internship program, which I think is a good way to get extra assistance.”

“Chaz has a great deal of wisdom for his young age,” said Dori Tompa, executive director of Steel City Rowing Club. “We’ve been very appreciative of his enthusiasm, and the unusual perspective for us—especially his interest in helping us to get a variety of people to benefit from the organization. He is very helpful in enabling us to find way of reaching out into the community.”

“I’m the furthest thing from rowing you could think of,” said Kellem, who lives in Brighton Heights and now serves on several other boards. “But I saw an opportunity to make some change and to spread awareness of a group that not everybody knows about. My goal is to make rowing a multicultural sporting event.”

Meanwhile, he also is accomplishing a higher purpose. “It gives me a chance to work with an audience that otherwise might not have a disabled person on its board. I’m proud of being disabled. It’s not who I am, it’s a part of who I am. But it’s not all of me.”

For others who might consider a board term, Kellem said, “You need to be patient with the process because you have to find something that you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, it becomes pointless to you and to that organization.”

For more information on Boards-by-Design, which has matched more than 400 individuals with nonprofit boards in five years, call 412.396.6231 or e-mail BoardsByDesign@duq.edu.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.