Kathy Tuell, the chief executive of the Florida Keys Children's Shelter in Tavernier since 1995, has given notice to the nonprofit and plans to leave the Keys with her family this fall.
"We have family responsibilities we really need to take care of," Tuell said Friday. "I'm not going to another job. It's a personal decision."
Tuell, 62, and her husband, Tom Tuell, 61, editor of The Citizen since 2001, are moving back to Oklahoma -- where they both attended college -- to be closer to relatives, including her in-laws in their 90s.
About 17 months ago, the Tuells took in a granddaughter who is about to turn 7. They live in Marathon.
"We've always known we would retire to Oklahoma," said Kathy Tuell. "We were married in their backyard. What kind of family advocate would I be if I can't be responsible for my own?"
Tuell said she will probably seek work when her family settles in Oklahoma, but isn't certain what the future holds. Her peers called her resignation a loss to the Keys, citing her leadership, commitment and national presence in the social services field.
"She's been a star in our community and I'm really very sad to hear that," said the Rev. Steve Braddock, CEO of Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, which helps homeless men and women recover from addiction and the streets. "She has demonstrated impeccable integrity, genuine contagious passion and total devotion to children who are most in need."
She gave her board of directors notice a week ago, setting her last day of work as Sept. 20, and pledged to help with the transition.
"We have great leadership," said Tuell of the nonprofit headquartered in Tavernier. "We have good solid policies and procedures and practices in place. It's going to keep getting better and better as time goes by."
At 18 years, Tuell is one of the longest-serving nonprofit CEOs in the Keys.
The Florida Keys Children's Shelter serves homeless children from birth to 17 throughout the entire island chain, with a 19-bed shelter in Tavernier, a shelter and group home in Key West and counseling throughout the county.
Also in Key West, the nonprofit runs Project Lighthouse, a "drop-in" center offering a place for homeless teens, often on the road, to store their things, wash clothes and connect with resources.
With a territory 120 miles long, the nonprofit is like other social service agencies in the Keys in that it cannot afford to fail, because it's the only game in town, said Tuell.
"Not only do we have to be all things to all people but as a system of care, there is one of everything," said Tuell. "I've always felt like it's been my responsibility to say, don't forget small rural organizations."
Tuell, who started her career as a newspaper reporter in Oklahoma, moved to Florida in the late 1980s and worked as an administrator at a psychiatric hospital and then for the state Department of Children and Family Services as the top spokeswoman.
She was recruited by the board of directors of the children's shelter in 1995.
"She's a true community champion," said Braddock. "It's a great loss for our community. She's going to be a hard act to follow."
The Sept. 20 resignation date, almost six months away, didn't make her announcement any easier on staff.
"That doesn't make it any better," said Jai Sommers, who has run Project Lighthouse in Key West for almost seven years. "I've learned so much from her. It's not easy to be a leader of an organization and she's done it so incredibly well."