Michael Landis was a young executive rising through the ranks of corporate America when he had a brief but life-changing encounter.
It was Thanksgiving week, 1988, and Landis had arrived at the Neighborhood Center, a Camden nonprofit that works with disadvantaged families, to deliver a food donation from his church in suburban Haddonfield. He walked through the doors and saw long lines of adults and children waiting for prepackaged groceries and a turkey.
“There was tremendous need that I didn’t know existed so close to my home,” says Landis CCAS’83. “It was a shock, and a call to action for me.”
As Landis progressed in his career, landing senior positions at firms like the Campbell Soup Co., he stayed connected to the center, serving as a volunteer and board member.
But in 2012, with the nonprofit at a difficult crossroads and facing deep financial challenges, Landis took a leap of faith. He left his corporate career to become the center’s executive director, a position he still holds today.
“I jumped in to try to turn it around, figuring, ‘How hard could it be?’’’ he said. “Well, as it turns out, it’s pretty hard!”
And deeply satisfying.
Known as the “community living room” of Camden, the Neighborhood Center is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through services that include early childhood care, after-school activities, summer camp, and a senior citizens program.
“The best way to break the cycle is having programs that help both the child and the mom,” Landis said. “And you help the mom in so many ways just by having childcare or after-school and evening programs.”
The center—which provides a full range of academic support for teenagers—gets results that a seasoned executive like Landis can appreciate.
“Every one of our (high school) seniors last year went off to college,” he said. “That’s huge.”
Landis, a native of Barrington, New Jersey, majored in history at Rutgers University–Camden, where he developed a deep appreciation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal.
He also acquired strong writing and public speaking skills, including through serving as vice president of the student government and news editor at the student newspaper, which served him well first in the business world and now at the center.
“I write appeal letters that do pretty well,” he says.
After graduating from Rutgers, his corporate career in human resources thrived, taking him from Shared Medical Services Inc. to Campbell and British beverage giant Diageo. He then went to Banister International, an executive search firm where the perks included a share in a private jet.
But during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, Landis discovered he could use his skills to help people in need. He started a program at his church for parishioners who had lost their jobs. He helped with their resumes, coached them for interviews, and taught negotiating skills.
“It was far more rewarding than making bucks,” he said. “And I think that experience helped me make the transition a few years later to the Neighborhood Center.”
At the center, he oversees a staff of 25 who provide a full range of programs for children and teens—in academics, athletics, the arts, and even urban farming. Under his leadership, the center has begun recovering from its crisis and is on better footing today.
“I like seeing children happy,” Landis said. “At the end of the day, you want to be at the Neighborhood Center because you smile.”