Laurel Center returns sexual assault counselor to Warren County

By Katie Demeria

WINCHESTER — When Paula Johnson of Front Royal started working at Harmony Place as a night manager, she was paid $10 a night.

“And they taxed,” Johnson said. “I needed the money, of course, but that was secondary to me. I really just wanted to be part of it.”

Johnson worked at the Front Royal shelter for 18 years, witnessing its closure in October of last year. She can speak firsthand of the devastating impact the loss of Harmony Place had on the community.

Many individuals within Warren County who experienced sexual assault or domestic violence were familiar with the staff at Harmony Place, Johnson said. When it closed, they were forced to travel to other counties to seek those services.

“When you’re dealing with sexual violence, there’s always that trust issue,” Johnson said. “So reaching out to someone else that they don’t know and then trying to form another relationship is very difficult.”

Rebuilding that relationship within the community was exactly what the Laurel Center was hoping to do when they hired Johnson to again provide services to individuals who experienced sexual assault and domestic violence in Warren County.

The Laurel Center is working with the United Way of Front Royal’s Phoenix Project to restore the services lost when Harmony Place closed. According to Leslie Hardesty, the center’s sexual abuse program coordinator, Johnson is a vital part of restoring those services.

“We were devastated when Harmony Place closed,” Hardesty said. “It was difficult for a nonprofit program with limited resources to meet the needs of a whole other county.”

Hardesty described finding and returning Johnson to Warren County as a perfect solution for the Laurel Center.

“Paula came with experience, she’s from the area so she’s not an outsider trying to provide service in a really close knit community, but she’s part of that community already, so it really worked out perfectly for her to be there,” Hardesty said.

Johnson will spend around three days a week in Front Royal, working in the same offices as the rest of the Phoenix Project’s staff. She will provide individual counseling, support groups, community education and law enforcement accompaniments when necessary.

While in Winchester she will assist Warren County individuals who travel to Winchester Medical Center in need of rape crisis response.

She is likely to start her work again in the next few weeks.

Johnson had worked her way up from night manager to sexual assault intervention specialist by the time Harmony Place closed.

She said she had been hesitant to take that position when asked due to the stigma surrounding sexual violence. But Harmony Place persisted, and finally she accepted the job.

“It was the best move I ever made,” she said.

The work inspired Johnson to go back to school at age 40. She is in the process of getting her master’s degree in mental health counseling.

Her work with Harmony Place, though, did not necessary require a counseling degree.

“More than anything, they just needed to be heard and believed,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have to go in and do a whole lot of anything other than honoring their story and believing them, but I wanted to do more, and so that’s why I began to get more education and provide more education.”

Johnson said she is very ready to return to Warren County and hopes that those she helped through Harmony Place will seek her assistance again.

“This is my joy,” she said.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com