News & Events
Florida House Representative Kathleen Peters '99 is Wired for Service
By Mary Ellen Collins
Last month, Eckerd alumna Kathleen Peters '99, the newly-elected Florida House Representative for District 69, spoke to current students about how her education prepared her for a career in public office. Politics were not part of her plan when she was majoring in human development in order to become a counselor for children. But her education, combined with her passion and ability to get things done, formed the perfect foundation for her professional and political careers.
While enrolled in Eckerd's Program for Experienced Learners, an internship with the Juvenile Welfare Board led to her first post-college job as the special assistant to then-JWB executive director, Jim Mills. Her projects included coordinating a statewide group to develop a legislative agenda for policies associated with juvenile justice; and managing the Millennium Youth Legacy Committee, which developed program criteria and acquired funding to open a local teen center.
"I loved what I was doing," she says. "The skills I got from my human development degree really helped me … If I wasn't effective at group dynamics, I never would have been successful."
After three years at the JWB, she went to the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg as their grant writer and later as the financial development director. Although the Y was not involved in juvenile justice, she says the executive director gave her the latitude to follow her interest in that field. After researching and being appalled by the high rate of arrests of middle school students for "crimes" such as cursing at teachers and writing on walls, she took action. She created a Youth Enhancement Skills Program, and garnered $800,000 in funding to run the program at five middle schools, all of which experienced a decrease in behavioral referral, suspension and arrest rates.
When the CEO of the YMCA left to become the head of the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, he recruited Peters to be the vice president of public affairs, the position she holds today. In the meantime, Peters' unplanned political career was getting off the ground. She had served on the City of South Pasadena's Planning and Zoning Board for two years, before running for city commission.
"Because of my success with the Youth Enhancement Skills Program, I was encouraged to run for office. People said if I could do that and I was just an angry mom, imagine the things I could do if I were in a leadership role." She was elected to South Pasadena's City Commission in 2008; and when the mayor retired in 2009, the Commission voted for her to serve out his term. She then ran unopposed and was re-elected Mayor in March 2010.
"I was very upset about the economy—there were so many vacant stores, and the only businesses that were moving in were things like pawn shops. I created a redevelopment plan to make a more walkable city. It's a very long process, and when that is complete and if it does go through, that will be my proudest achievement."
She didn't plan on running for state House, despite encouragement from several representatives who thought her understanding of small cities would serve her well in the role. But when Senator Jack Latvala weighed in, he convinced her to go for it, and she was elected in November 2012. She's focusing on workforce development and education, but she says her principal agenda is not a bill. After touring St. Petersburg College's prosthetics/orthotics lab, she wants to make that degree program a national center of excellence.
"I was so impressed. I thought, 'This is research and development! This is manufacturing!' I went to the president [of the college] and said what's it going to take to grow this program and work the economic development side? It requires $615,000 in funding to offer all of the certificates that are available in that field, and I'm trying to get the money appropriated. If it can become a center of excellence, a leader in prosthetics and orthotics, it will become a catalyst for research and development. I'll keep working on this whether I'm re-elected or not – this is important to my community." That big picture perspective and focus on effecting positive change runs through everything that Peters takes on.
"My whole life I've been wired for service. When you get involved in strengthening your community, no matter what you do, your life is richer. I've loved it, I've seen it, I know it. I can't see doing anything else."
This feature is the sixth in a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni, faculty and staff who embody Eckerd's longstanding culture of service through their livelihoods and/or their volunteer activities. Through speaker presentations, campus initiatives and these profiles, Eckerd College's 2012-2013 Presidential Events Series, Cultivating Service: People, Politics Planet, demonstrate that service for the greater good can be achieved through scientific research, civil and public servant leadership, environmental protection, social justice action and commentary, foreign diplomacy, time in the armed forces, pro bono legal counsel and hands-on projects.
Kathleen's February talk, "From Scholar to State Representative," was sponsored by Eckerd's Pi Sigma Alpha chapter and was part of Eckerd's College Program Series and 2012-2013 Presidential Events Series, "Cultivating Service: People, Politics Planet."