By Dani Moritz-Long
Born and raised in Missouri, Director of Total Rewards Tom Keller yearned for a fresh start somewhere new — preferably somewhere in the sunny, palm tree-filled paradise of Florida, where he had vacationed most of his life. Ironically, the one Florida hot spot he didn’t plan on moving to is exactly where he ended up: Orlando.
“All I could think of was Disney,” he said. “I thought it was all just one big theme park.”
With hip city living at the top of his must-have list, it turned out Orlando was much more than the home of its famous resident rodent. Surprisingly, Tom said, it turned out to be exactly the up-and-coming, urban area he was looking for.
“The more I investigated the city,” he said, “what really attracted me to Orlando was what was happening with the development of downtown. Because I lived in a more urban area in St. Louis, I wanted that kind of vibe. I didn’t see that in Tampa, I didn’t see that in Ft. Lauderdale or in Jacksonville.”
So, in 2004, he traded the St. Louis Arch for the Cinderella Castle, and he never looked back.
Fortunately, Tom found not only his ideal walk-able city location, but also a community he felt connected to. He quickly formed an appreciation of the diversity of Orlando and the population’s acceptance of the LGBT community and other minority groups.
“It’s an amazing community where your friends, neighbors and co-workers are so diverse,” he said. “It’s awesome.”
He also found a professional calling in Orlando — first with the YMCA of Central Florida and later with Valencia.
While working at the YMCA, Tom says he discovered a passion for helping people access and understand healthcare, retirement and their Total Rewards, so he was happy to continue that work at Valencia.
“I’m where I am today because of my passion for wanting people to have good health insurance, retirement planning and the knowledge of how to use all of their benefits,” he said.
In applying to work at Valencia, the College’s mission also resonated with him as he lived the story many of our students are living today.
Out of high school, Tom knew he would have to pay his own way through college — something that proved a significant challenge. He dropped out after one year of combining work with school, unable to afford his courses, and returned five years later — attending college part-time and working full-time. He graduated at 32 from the University of Missouri – St. Louis after nearly a decade of higher education with a bachelor’s degree in communications.
“I understand that it is a huge balance and a huge commitment [to balance work and school] and that it’s hard,” he said.
Remembering this and knowing the impact Valencia has on students like him, however, is something that continues to drive his work.
“I love hearing those stories of students whose lives changed because of Valencia,” he said, “and I love knowing the impact we have on people’s lives in the community.”
To facilitate his passion in opening doors for Valencia students, Tom says he and the Organizational Development and Human Resources team are committed to helping Valencia faculty and staff best utilize their benefits and find the ideal balance of the benefits Valencia can offer as part of our Total Rewards package. It can be a tall order balancing everyone’s needs, he said, but he’s dedicated to helping create and sustain a Total Rewards package that benefits the most Valencia employees possible.
“I try to make things easier for others, so they can focus on the important work with students,” he said.
Commenting on Tom’s dedication, Assistant Vice President of Talent Acquisition and Total Rewards Mary Beth Clifton called Tom a “phenomenal asset to Valencia.”
“Tom comes to work each day with an enthusiastic energy and a passion for serving Valencia’s employees,” she said. “He has recently celebrated his three-year anniversary. In this time of service, he has helped Valencia College enhance Total Rewards offerings for health care and retirement plans.”
In his free time, you can find Tom maximizing his own Total Rewards by taking advantage of his vacation time to travel the world with his husband, Sascha.
Know of someone who embodies one of Valencia’s Values (learning, people, diversity, access or integrity), who has been an employee for one year or more? Send the colleague’s name to us at The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu. He or she might be one of our featured colleagues, subject to supervisor’s approval.