Chambliss Center for Children's departing CEO oversaw decades of change in Chattanooga

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / CEO Phil Acord stands at the Chambliss Center for Children on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.

Chambliss Center for Children has undergone significant changes in its 149 years, many under the watchful eye of CEO Phil Acord. So when he brings his half-century at the helm of the organization to a close at the end of this year, he'll be leaving behind a community institution very different from the one he joined at age 25.

After serving several years in Alaska during the Vietnam War, Acord returned to Chattanooga, where the West Virginia native had attended Tennessee Temple University, and he started working in the detention unit of juvenile court.

He became frustrated when several of the young men he really believed in ended up being found guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. Acord went to the detention unit director and said he wanted to go someplace where he could make a difference in the lives of children and families.

"I want to go somewhere where I can use the talents and skills and all I have to make things better, to improve the lives of children - especially disadvantaged children that are really struggling," he said.

The head of the detention unit told Acord that Edna Bunn, then director of the Children's Home, was looking for an associate director.

Bunn interviewed five candidates, all older and more experienced than 25-year-old Acord, he said.

"She has no idea why she hired me," Acord said.

It was 1971 when he took the assistant director job and moved into the yellow house that now serves as the administrative building where his office is located. When Bunn retired five years later he took over as director in 1976, as the nation's economy grew and the demand for child care was exploding, Acord said.

At that point, the Children's Home served about 90 children, about half of whom lived on site. The other half received what they call "care around the clock," in which children lived at home but their parents could drop them off at any time of the day while they were at work.

"It was really one of the most unique programs in the country at that point," Acord said.

Acord recognized fairly quickly that the demand for the residential program was diminishing while the demand for early childhood education was growing. He convinced the board of directors to allow him to convert areas used for the residential program into early childhood education classrooms.

photo Contributed photo by Chambliss Center for Children / Chambliss Center for Children CEO Phil Acord leads a child on a tricycle at the 1978 opening of a paved bike trail that still exists on the campus today. The photo was taken a year into Acord's time as executive director of the Children's Home, which is now Chambliss Center for Children.

Forming partnerships

In 1982, Hamilton County ceased to operate its children's home on Bonny Oaks Drive and the Alexander Chambliss Emergency Shelter in Highland Park. Acord convinced the board to allow him to contract with the county to run the program, which moved to the Children's Home campus in Brainerd.

The emergency shelter and the Children's Home's residential program were moved to an annex building, leaving the main building dedicated entirely to early childhood education beginning in 1983.

The number of children served through the early childhood education program soared, with more than 700 children on a waiting list at one point, Acord said. That's when the Children's Home launched its first capital campaign, which funded the addition of a gym building containing more classrooms.

"That was our first expansion, really just trying to respond to the community's demand for our services," he said.

The focus of the early childhood program, which charges on a sliding fee scale and is still operating 24/7/365, is on serving low-income, single-parent families.

Contracting with the county in 1983 to operate the emergency shelter was the first of many partnerships the Children's Home formed with other community organizations.

The Chambliss Center is considered a national model for shared services, in which resources of various child service agencies are pooled together for increased efficiency and affordability as well as to provide a broader array of services to the families of the children, Acord said.

Chambliss Center is considered a large "hub" agency that provides services to its clients 24/7, as well as managing and providing back-office services to smaller agencies. Those agencies have their own boards, but Acord serves as their CEO and provides financial reports, he said.

Serving schools

One of the most unusual partnerships facilitated by Acord is a child care program for teachers at Hamilton County Schools. Chambliss Center was already partnering with a child care center at Howard School, and then-Superintendent Jesse Register approached Acord about doing something on a larger scale.

Register told Acord that the system was losing 49% of new teachers within their first three years of teaching. He said that during their exit interviews, most said they were leaving because they were starting families and were not able to find adequate child care.

"So they had to choose between being a mother and taking care of their child and being a teacher, or having some arrangement that they're not happy with, so they quit," Acord said.

Jill Levine, then principal at Normal Park Museum Magnet School, had just had a baby and turned in her resignation. She told Register that if he allowed the school to provide on-site child care, then she would continue to work there. He gave her the go-ahead, but the school board put a stop to it because of the liability issue, as the school system's insurance only covered children 3 and older.

So Register asked Acord to consider running a child care program inside the schools, which he agreed to do in 2002. Insuring an off-site child care center only added a small amount of money to the Chambliss Center's annual bill, and teachers who used the service paid the cost to staff the on-site child care center plus 10% overhead.

About a dozen schools now have on-site child care centers, which is fewer than previous years because of COVID-related staffing issues, he said.

photo Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Phil Acord at the Chambliss Center for Children on Monday, October 4, 2021.

Transitional living

The last children to live at Chambliss Center moved out in February 2020, and its foster program now oversees about 40 foster homes in the community. The program serves children until they turn 18, and many have trouble transitioning to independent living.

"Just because they're 18 doesn't mean they're able to be out there on their own and take care of themselves," Acord said.

The initial goal was to build two duplexes to serve eight youths transitioning out of foster care. Thanks to a generous benefactor, however, that was more than tripled. The center now serves 30 young adults in the transitional living program in three buildings purchased downtown and several duplexes built and renovated near the Brainerd campus.

Soon the yellow house Acord moved into when he became the center's director will be torn down and replaced with an Isaiah 117 House, which will be a comforting place for children entering state custody to go while they await placement.

"We'll have the ability to serve a child from the very first day they get removed from their home because of neglect or abuse," Acord said. "They'll come here, and then they might end up living in one of our foster homes, and then, somewhere down the road they might end up in one of our transitional living homes - literally the full continuum of services."

Acord said his main contribution to the organization has been the creation of an atmosphere or attitude of always looking at what needs exist and how they can be fulfilled in the most efficient way.

'We probably have the best governing board of directors of any nonprofit agency in the community," Acord said. "They kept my feet to the fire and they kept me accountable, but at the same time they trusted and have been willing to take chances to launch new and innovative programs under their watchful eye."

Moving on

Five years ago, Acord announced his intention to retire Nov. 11, 2021 - 50 years to the day he began working at what is now known as Chambliss Center for Children.

About a year and a half after his announcement, the committee in charge of selecting Acord's replacement abandoned plans for a nationwide CEO search, instead tapping a resource a lot closer to home - board President Katie Harbison.

"She meets a lot of the criteria that you wouldn't necessarily be able to plug into if we got somebody from outside of our community," he said of the Chattanooga native. "A lot of what I call the subtle points of connectedness that you need in a CEO ... she has those. They're a part of who she is."

Acord decided to extend his 50-year-anniversary retirement date an extra 50 days, so now he plans to continue until the end of the year.

Harbison took over the management of off-site agencies earlier this month, so Acord has been showered with balloons and cake as he attended his final board meetings at the myriad agencies he's helped manage - some for decades, in some instances.

As people celebrate him and all he's accomplished, he reminds himself that none of the success of his programs is about him.

Sustaining programs that rely on partnerships is about trust, he said.

"They've got to look in my eyes and know that what I'm saying to them is true and that I'm going to work as hard as I can to make them be successful and do what needs to be done for them to continue to provide the services they need to provide," Acord said of partner organization leaders. "It's not real complicated - just get over yourself, work hard, show up and convince them that they can trust you."

Contact Emily Crisman at or 423-757-6508.

Chambliss Center for Children Timeline

1872 — Women from local churches opened food pantry and clothes closet for needy children and families.1878 — Women became formally organized as Women’s Christian Association to help care for orphaned children after the yellow fever epidemic.1913 — Land on Vine Street donated to allow the WCA to have a permanent home. Agency became known as the Vine Street Orphans’ Home.1937 — The board of the Vine Street Orphan’s Home held its first capital campaign to raise funds to build a new facility in Brainerd. The agency moved into its new home in May 1939.1955 — The Vine Street Orphans’ Home changed its name to Children’s Home.1965 — The Children’s Home board helped commission a study of social service needs in Chattanooga. One of the critically needed services identified was a 24-hour child care center.1969 — The agency began “Care Around the Clock,” a child care service available 24/7.1971 — Phil Acord hired as associate director.1977 — Acord promoted to executive director.1983 — The Chambliss Emergency Shelter was relocated from its location in Highland Park to the Children’s Home at 315 Gillespie Road. The agency became Children’s Home/Chambliss Shelter.2004 – CH/CS signed a contract with the Hamilton County Department of Education to provide on-site child care at requested area schools for children of school employees.2005-2006 — The Chambliss Shelter building underwent a $1.2 million remodeling.2006 — CH/CS opened The Thrift Store to process donations and support the CH/CS operations’ budget.2013- Changed name to Chambliss Center for Children.2017 (July) — Opened The Thrift Store in Red Bank to provide more financial support to its operations.2017 (July) —Began Transitional Living for youth aging out of the foster care system and opened housing at 402-408 Gillespie Road.2018 — Renovated duplexes and opened four more Transitional Living units at 438-454 Gillespie Road.February 2020 — Permanently closed group home due to legislative changes at the federal level.July 2020 — Opened first six-unit apartment building for Transitional Living Program.January 2021 — Kick-off of Isaiah 117 House at Chambliss Center for Children.March 2021 — Opened second six-unit apartment building for Transitional Living Program.November 2021 — Acord to step down as CEO.