By Rubin E. Grant
Jeff Underwood has been called a visionary, but he considers himself just a guy who cares about his community.
That’s what has motivated Underwood as president and CEO of Lakeshore Foundation for the past 30 years.
Underwood joined the nonprofit organization in 1991, serving as its first and only president for the past three decades. With him at the forefront, Lakeshore became recognized as a leader in fitness, recreation, sport, research and advocacy for people with physical disabilities and chronic health conditions.
“The biggest change has been how we’ve grown from a service to the community to doing things on an international level,” Underwood said. “We haven’t lost sight of our commitment to the community, but we have been able to do things on a much larger scale.”
Now, Underwood, 69, has decided to step away and let someone else take the reins. Underwood announced May 20 he is retiring.
“This feels like as good a time as any,” Underwood said. “The organization is in a good place and we have a strong leadership team and the future looks bright, so this just felt like the time.
“The official date is Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The search activity (for a new president/CEO) is already under way, so that date could change depending on the search progress.”
Underwood’s visionary leadership enabled Lakeshore to experience steady growth.
“Jeff Underwood has led Lakeshore Foundation from its humble beginnings to the nationally and internationally acclaimed position it now holds in disability fitness, sport, research and advocacy,” said Mark McColl, board chairman of Lakeshore Foundation. “The board, staff and the Lakeshore Foundation community will be forever grateful for Jeff Underwood’s devotion and leadership over the last 30 years.”
Three Best Changes
When Underwood looks back, three things readily come to mind as major achievements on his watch.
Lakeshore became a national and international facility, being designated as an official U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site in 2003, which resulted in Lakeshore Foundation’s long history of advancing adaptive sports.
Underwood said getting that designation “is a demonstration to the community and country of our expertise.
“We already had that credibility, but that just made it look more official,” he said.
As a U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site, Lakeshore hosts national team training camps and international competitions. Since the training site designation, Lakeshore has produced 52 Paralympic athletes, coaches and staff, and those athletes have captured 30 Paralympic medals. Lakeshore also is the High Performance Management Organization of USA Wheelchair Rugby.
Additionally, the Lima Foxtrot program for injured military members and the formation of the University of Alabama at Birmingham–Lakeshore Research Collaborative also occurred with Underwood at the helm.
“I think our injured military program is something we’re honored to do,” Underwood said. “It’s something the community has supported. Birmingham has risen to the occasion and I’m proud of that.
“Another thing is the establishment with UAB Health as a research collaborator. It’s not only delivery of care but studying ways to advance our service and care.”
Local Remains at the Heart
But of course, for Underwood, community stayed at the core of the mission. He led the development of new facilities, an advocacy department and many sports and recreation programs for youth and adults.
“I am very proud of the fact that, in the midst of all the national attention, our extraordinary staff and board have kept our members, local athletes and community at the very center of all we do. They are truly the heart and soul of Lakeshore,” he said.
Lakeshore’s mission is to encourage and provide opportunities for people with disability to live a healthy lifestyle through activity, research, advocacy and health promotion. Supporting this mission included partnerships with many other organizations, such as a collaboration with Apple to develop the activity tracker for wheelchair users and the construction of dormitories and cottages for visiting Lima Foxtrot participants and athletes.
“When I decided to accept the position at Lakeshore, I saw it as an opportunity and a challenge,” Underwood said. “It was an opportunity to come into an organization where there was a strong commitment by the board to build a successful program and a challenge to test myself to see as the first full-time employee, if I could be successful in that situation.”
Underwood is a member of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee Paralympic Advisory Council. In 2008, he was named by the U.S. Olympic Committee as the chef de mission for the U.S. Paralympic Team for the Beijing Paralympic Games.
Prior to Lakeshore, Underwood worked at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and served as a legislative assistant to former U.S. Rep. Ben Erdreich. He also served as president of the Homewood City Council and as a state senator. He has served on the boards of several community and civic organizations, including the Homewood City Schools, the Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Program and Disabled Sports USA. He was a member of the Leadership Birmingham Class of 1998 and the Leadership Alabama Class of 2011.
Underwood is a 1974 graduate of the University of Alabama, where he received a bachelor’s degree from the School of Commerce and Business Administration. He received his Master of Public Administration in 1976 from Auburn University Montgomery.
Underwood was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He and his wife, Melinda, have two daughters, Anna and Maria. They attend Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood.
Underwood is uncertain about what his next chapter will be after Lakeshore.
“Part of me is glad I don’t have a plan and the other part is terrified I don’t have a plan,” he said. “One day I will wake up wondering what do I have to do today and end up with a full calendar and another day I will wake up and wonder what needs to be done in the yard.”
But he has no doubt Lakeshore will continue to flourish.
“Lakeshore’s strength is the people,” Underwood said. “It’s not one person, but the community, the board of directors and the staff. It never depends on one person to make it go.
“I think the program will continue to shine and grow. I am excited to see what the next chapter is for Lakeshore.”