When Spring Hill native Shannon Sokolowski signed on as executive director of the Dawn Center in September, the overwhelming response from the domestic abuse center's staff was: "she gets it."
Too often, managers and administrators come in without understanding the "nuances" of day-to-day operations, said Sokolowski, such as which door leads to the garage, and the fact that well water flows out of the taps.
Sokolowski, 31, started volunteering at the shelter fresh out of college, and eventually landed a paid position. Like so many involved with non-profit work, she fell into, and loved, it.
Sokolowski said she's seen individuals with great clinical skills be promoted to executive positions, and miss the management skills necessary for success. In 2010, Sokolowski completed her master's degree in nonprofit management from the University of Central Florida, her undergraduate alma mater, finishing up her coursework late as night as her newborn daughter slept.
Returning to the Dawn Center felt like "coming home," Sokolowski said. Because she had answered the hotline calls and checked in residents, the learning curve was shorter, and Sokolowski said she had a more "immediate rapport" with the center's staff than a director coming in cold.
Though the organization has struggled financially the past few years, Sokolowski said the interim director, Kelly Sinn from the Sunrise Center of Pasco, did a great job with the leadership transition, which allowed her to come into a "clean slate."
"I felt confident coming in, the interview committee and board were honest on the struggles, and I knew the direction they were moving in."
Because Sokolowski slipped seamlessly back into the Dawn Center, she's been able to start creating new community relationships in Hernando County. Too many business cards to count are stacked by her computer, and her primary focus for the new year is starting a community-wide task force.
Sokolowski said Hillsborough and Pasco counties have established task forces that meet regularly to assess the needs of local domestic abuse survivors.
"Often a survivor doesn't just need shelter, or just need counseling, or just need the kinds of services we offer," said Sokolowski, adding the importance for all available services to talk and re-evaluate on a regular basis.
Another priority is increasing the Dawn Center's visibility. "We are the best kept secret in Hernando County, and really it just needs to be the location [of the shelter] that is confidential," Sokolowski said. She's started a Facebook page, is re-vamping the website and is planning to launch an e-newsletter in January so donors, volunteers and anyone else interested can stay in touch and find out what's new at the center.
The Dawn Center, housed at a secret location protected by Florida law, can house 42 people on any given day. Last week, 38 women called the shelter home. A typical stay is eight weeks, though in the down economy some families are granted extensions to stay longer. Last year, 400 women and children spent time at the shelter, though about 1,200 men, women and children in Hernando County were served by the center's outreach services.
"We want women and children who stay here to be warm and comfortable like a guest in our home, and we want this to be their home when they stay here," Sokolowski said. The center provides daily hot meals, towels, sheets, hygiene products, clothes, as well as support groups, legal counsel and other services to help women who have experienced domestic or sexual violence reach their goals. Sometimes it's returning home to their out-of-state family; others want to find employment and their own place to live.
Sokolowski thinks if violence against women is ever going to end, it's going to be when the dialogue changes.
"First of all, we need to stop thinking about thinking about it as a women's issue. Even though 95 percent of the time it's women who are victimized, society as a whole makes it OK."
Sokolowski said the domestic violence movement needs healthy, empowered men who put positive peer pressure on others to treat women with respect. Another key problem is victim-blaming; Sokolowski said so many people ask why a victim simply does not leave an abusive home or relationship.
"The only person who can stop it is the person causing the violence, we need to ask why does he batter, not why doesn't she leave."
The Dawn Center has 60 active volunteers on the books, and Sokolowski recently hired a new volunteer coordinator. Volunteers can help drive women to job interviews or appointments, and there is always paperwork to file in the office. More creative help is needed as well, such as a recent volunteer who instructed the women on how to make their own laundry detergent for two cents a load.
For community members looking for a more dedicated role, the center offers a 60-hour advocate training course, so volunteers can answer the crisis hotline and perform other specialized tasks.
Sokolowski said very often volunteers have a personal connection to domestic violence. "The domestic violence awareness movement didn't start until 1977, so for some of our more senior volunteers, the services we offer today didn't exist back then."
The Dawn Center has an ongoing wish list on their website, and in addition to household products such as toilet paper, diapers and wipes, gift cards for gas and grocery stores are especially appreciated. Sokolowski said some women who do come to the shelter have a car but not the money for gas, and grant funding doesn't cover perishables, such as fresh meat and produce. Drop-off locations are throughout Hernando County, with information on the closest one available by calling (352) 684-7191.
Ten years into her nonprofit career, Sokolowski now knows her work is "invigorating," not depressing as she originally imagined.
"The abuse was the horrible part, we are on the healing end," Sokolowski said, adding the Dawn Center staff gets to see lives changing every day. "It's uplifting."
Sokolowski learned an important lesson in the first few days of volunteering she carries with her and learns again and again. A mentor told Sokolowski she could "see the pity" on her face, and let her know the women didn't need it.
"They're just women, not victims, just women," Sokolowski said. "And I hope 10 years down the road the women see themselves that way: someone who just had an experience."
More information on the Dawn Center can be found on their website, www.dawncenter.org. The Dawn Center can be reached by phone: outreach (352) 592-1288; shelter, (352) 686-8759 or 683-0110; teen abuse help line (866) 331-9474.