Laurel Center director to step down after 28 years

Kay Harris

When The Laurel Center of Winchester began in the 1980s, it was far different than it is today. Originally an emergency shelter for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, it now also includes counseling for victims of violence, support groups, curriculum groups and help for those experiencing trauma.

After nearly 30 years under the same leadership, The Laurel Center announced this week it has named a new executive director.

Kaye Harris, executive director of the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance in New Orleans, Louisiana, will begin her new position on Aug. 3 and succeed Donna Carpenter, who has led The Laurel Center for 28 years.

Chosen from among 21 applicants, Harris fulfilled the expectation the board of directors had of hiring someone experienced in fundraising and public speaking, said Pamela Lamborne, board president.

Harris will be responsible for everything, Lamborne said, “So we wanted someone that was familiar with crisis intervention.”

In New Orleans, Harris leads a coalition of nonprofit organizations, city officials and concerned residents who advocated for civic engagement and social justice for under-served communities, a news release from The Laurel Center stated. She also serves as her organization’s primary fundraiser and campaign leader.

Carpenter, who will retire after 28 years with the organization, said The Laurel Center, which serves Winchester and the counties of Frederick and Clarke, has changed immeasurably since its early days in the 1980s.

“We didn’t even provide food at the time,” Carpenter said.

There were no programs, no computers. It was just a small shelter program with two staff members and a couple of night managers.

But now, she said, “It’s kind of a different world.”

“Since 1987, the program has expanded by leaps and bounds,” she said.

Staff members help victims navigate the criminal justice system, set up court protective orders and piece their lives back together. They also run an emergency room sexual assault program and work with forensic nurses to recover evidence to use in criminal proceedings.

They also partner with Lord Fairfax Community College and Shenandoah University on programs.

“We will go just about anywhere someone will invite us,” Carpenter said.

The organization also partners with Warren County, where The Laurel Center works with victims of sexual violence and the Phoenix Project helps those who have suffered domestic violence.

A larger building still under construction in downtown Winchester will house the emergency shelter, offices and more space for expanding in the future. The new headquarters will offer 21,000 feet compared to the 5,000 it has now in rooms Carpenter said the organization will probably sell after it moves.

The current shelter can house 12 now but in its new building should be able to house more than 30, she said. Women can stay in the shelter for 30 to 60 days, though she said most stay only a couple weeks.

“It’s not very long when you think that you’re trying to turn your whole life around,” she said.

But she said the process is meant to be a step toward healing, not another form of taking control over a victim’s life.

“You’re in crisis already, so then shelter just adds to it,” she said. “We don’t want to replace the perpetrator with the Laurel Center.”

Carpenter plans to train Harris before leaving near the end of August, but said she’s looking forward to her own transition — “just kicking it back and taking it easy.”

Though in recent years, on-call staff and The Laurel Center’s emergency hotline have fielded many calls that come in, Carpenter said in the beginning, she was the one on call.

“We didn’t even have beepers, so the call just came into my house,” she said. “It’s nothing like what it was before.”

Contact The Laurel Center at 540-667-6160 or call the emergency hotline at 540-667-6466. Contact Phoenix Project at 540-635-2302 or the emergency hotline at 540-635-2300.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com