Kelly DeGraff credits her parents and her community with influencing her decision to go into a life of public service.
“They really instilled that passion in me for wanting to do the right thing and to do good,” she said. “And public service seemed like a good avenue to go and to give back.”
DeGraff, the daughter of Ron and Geraldine Menzie of Derry Township, is a 1988 graduate of Derry Area High School. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two sons.
She was recently selected to be a member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program, which is a joint program through the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and American University’s School of Public Affairs. She is transitioning to the new position this month.
DeGraff has been serving as director of the Insurance and Mitigation Readiness Division at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Her 20-year public service career includes engagement at the federal, state, local and non-profit levels.
“I was part of the inaugural AmeriCorps class in 1994,” she said. “That’s what really jump started my career, but at the time I wasn’t an official public servant or federal employee.”
AmeriCorps is a federal agency that brings together people for community service. DeGraff’s projects included working in homeless shelters, supporting food banks, environmental projects on the trails in the Allegheny National Forest, and tutoring and mentoring in schools.
“I worked in disaster when there was flooding in Harrisburg, flooding in Houston, Texas, and mudslides in Oregon and Washington state. It was all an amazing experience. I spent the year as a team leader, and then went into public service,” she said.
DeGraff is a 1992 graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and a 2020 Harvard University Senior Executive Fellow. In her latest position with FEMA, she worked with communities and before and after disasters to help them build communities (for instance, through building codes) that can withstand disasters like flooding.
“We also deal with insurance, so if you live where it rains, which we all do, you need flood insurance, which isn’t covered by regular homeowner’s insurance,” she said. “The National Flood Insurance Program is subsidized by the federal government and provides a pathway to home owners to have insurance. That’s part of lessening the effects of a disaster. It won’t take away the pain and heartaches, but it will help in recovery.”
Now she’s working with the Senior Executive Service (SES), the federal government’s top cadre of managers. Members manage many of the federal government’s most important programs in national security and defense, science and technology, agriculture, the environment and information technology.
According to its website, the program “is one succession management tool agencies may use to identify and prepare aspiring senior executive leaders.” Members of the SES serve in key positions just below the top presidential appointees and the rest of the federal workforce. They operate and oversee nearly every government activity in about 75 federal agencies.
“The program has been in existence for a while,” DeGraff said, “But this is a new cohort.”
Her husband, Jeff, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, has worked in the Department of Defense and the Department of Navy as a civilian employee. They have two sons. Angelo, 20, is a college sophomore studying international relations. He’s spending a semester in Japan and plans to pursue a career in government and public service.
“Our other son Carmine is 15 and a sophomore in high school,” DeGraff said. “He hasn’t yet figured out his future, but he’s kind boy with a big heart.”
She believes that growing up in a small blue-collar community prepared her for her career path.
“The people really believe in working hard and taking care of each other,” she said. “For me, it was seeing my parents go out of their way to help people, whether they knew the people or didn’t know them. They seemed to look at things from a very unique perspective.”
DeGraff is looking forward to her future in the new position.
“I’m a lifelong learner and I believe that no matter how far up the chain you go, or how much education you have, there’s always something more to learn. I hope that I keep that with me until I’m 100 years old,” she said. “There’s always something to learn from peers and colleagues, and something to learn from others. I hope to come out of this more self-aware and overall, a better leader.”