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Beyond Food and Shelter: Safe Harbor Provides a Family and Plan for Teens in Need

This Brunswick nonprofit has been helping runaway, abused, and at-risk teens for more than two decades, but their new executive director couldn’t find the on-the-job assistance she needed to get the organization humming. Find out how GCN helped Safe Harbor tackle its community awareness issues and revamp a neglected strategic plan in our latest member profile.

Drive down Gloucester Street in picturesque Brunswick and you’ll catch a glimpse of a light blue bungalow peeking out from behind the Spanish moss and palm trees. It may look like any other single-family dwelling in this coastal community, but the family that has lived there for 21 years has more than 4,000 children.

“Being a part of this program gives me hope, and seeing children’s resiliency is just a blessing every day,” Hartman said. “We are so fortunate to be able to work with them at their time of need.”

Safe Harbor Children’s Center was founded by Susan and Bob Hamer in 1991, after they discovered there were no safe places in the community for abused, neglected, at-risk, or runaway teens. Enlisting their daughter to help, the couple started by collecting money at a stop light. Before long, they had gained the support of the community and bought the house on Gloucester that, more than two decades on, still provides a safe place for teens in need.

In addition to providing immediate needs like food and shelter, Safe Harbor employs a center-based approach, with programs designed to provide teens with the counseling, nurturing, and structure that’s missing from their lives on the outside. 

Beyond the shelter program, Safe Harbor also reaches out to the lower coast’s runaway and homeless youth with a field program called Street Beat, offering food, hygiene products, and even education and employment assistance, and provides counseling and other services to families at risk of losing their children through the Safe Harbor Family Preservation Program.

The Familial Approach

Executive Director Leslie Hartman has been a part of Safe Harbor since moving from Roswell to Brunswick 17 years ago. She first became involved through her mental health practice, by providing [volunteer, pro-bono, contract] therapy to Safe Harbor residents, and officially joined the team in 2002 as a full-time staff therapist. When the executive director position became available in 2010, the board asked her to take over as interim director; soon after, she was officially tapped to lead Safe Harbor into their third decade.

“Being a part of this program gives me hope, and seeing children’s resiliency is just a blessing every day,” Hartman said. “We are so fortunate to be able to work with them at their time of need.”

Although everyone comes to Safe Harbor from different backgrounds, Hartman is proud to say they’re one big family. This familiarity leads to constructive group session where every participant can discuss conflict, joy, sadness, and the situations that led them to be together.

Hartman is constantly amazed by the bonds residents make: dialoging in group sessions, staying together “like a little pack” during trips into the community, and in constant one-on-one talk with teens about enjoying their time together in this transitional phase.

“We said goodbye [recently] to a young lady that’s been with us for a year and a half, and we’re so happy because she’s going to be with her family in Florida,” Hartman said. “But we have a little closure ceremony. We have to say goodbye, and we teach and remind them how special they are to be here at this time, because it’s never going to be like that again.”

Defining Challenges, Finding Support, Partnering Up

Hartman was humbled to be promoted to Executive Director, but felt overwhelmed by the daunting task of planning, budgeting, and managing a private business. Complicating matters, she didn’t have access to previous directors and didn’t have a network of nonprofit leaders to consult with: “I knew there was a lot I didn’t know,” Hartman said. “But I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

“People know our name, but they don’t know what we do”

Happily, Hartman’s promotion coincided with the launch of Momentum, GCN’s robust, multi-year project to supercharge nonprofits with high-performance practices. Through Momentum’s extensive process of training, executive coaching and consulting services, Hartman realized the need to identify Safe Harbor’s most pressing challenges. By commissioning an environmental scan from a Georgia State University professor and talking with board, staff, community members, and chamber leaders, Hartman identified their first major issue: community awareness.

“People know our name, but they don’t know what we do,” Hartman said. “We’ve taken for granted that people understand the evolution of Safe Harbor. Yes, we house children, but we have other programs, too.”

With help from their GSU consultant, the board laid out a plan to start a speakers bureau, which would put Hartman in front of a wide range of different community organizations. When the new Chamber of Commerce business directory was released, Safe House sent a letter to all local businesses. Their volunteer auxiliary, meanwhile, began hosting coffee hours for neighborhoods and new community residents. As the outreach campaign gains steam, Safe House has gotten billboards donated to them, and even expanded awareness into surrounding counties. They’re also boosting awareness in high-tech ways, through a crisp new website (offering donations through Georgia Gives’ Click & Pledge portal) and email blasts. “We are really making our brand,” Hartman said.

Just a few months into this awareness blitz, Hartman has seen more invitations to community events and a rise in donation and volunteer levels. Hartman also notes that many of the gift-givers responding to their last Christmas gift donation drive were first-time donors to Safe Harbor.

Partnerships are also on the rise. Pizza Hut, Longhorn, Publix, and Harris Teeter donate food several times a week. Fellow Momentum participants are connecting with Safe Harbor to provide specialized services, such as graphic design assistance from the Golden Isles Career Academy (GICA). In fact, after Safe Harbor residents toured GICA, many changed their school schedules to take classes involving medical terminology: “It has opened up our community and expanded their horizons,” Hartman said.

Hartman also credits the Momentum process with filling the gaps in her personal development. From leadership skills to board governance, strategic planning, development, and data analysis, Hartman defines her experience overall as “amazing.”

New Path, New Journey

“Momentum has helped me delegate responsibilities and define my role as executive director,” Hartman said. “I was still struggling with all the stuff I used to do as a therapist, but now I have defined my role.”

"Momentum has helped me delegate responsibilities and define my role as executive director"

Hartman has replaced the 2004 strategic plan, a little-used document she found only after digging, with a new one born from professional coaching and a SWOT analysis. Consultant and GCN partner Cindy Kelly is training and fine-tuning Safe Harbor’s “very dedicated” board, and their Momentum coach continues to review grant applications with them, providing helpful tips for interacting with funders.

But Hartman believes one of the most helpful aspects of Momentum is the network of regional peer support it provides, something that didn’t exist for her before. “If I’m struggling, I can pick up the phone and call another director, and not just from a child center,” Hartman said. “Talking with executive directors of other nonprofits about similar experiences really allows us to build each other up.”

And as Safe Harbor Children’s Center moves into their 22nd year, Hartman believes that, now more than ever, they are in a position to move into a new stage of nonprofit achievement, opening up a new frontier of milestones to work toward: “We’ve found ourselves on a new path and a new journey. We’re excited about the opportunity to grow.”

For more on this story, view GCN’s mini-documentary on Momentum, featuring Safe Harbor Children's Center and Leslie Hartman or visit our Flickr photostream.

Tom Zimmerman is a Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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7.07.20, 7.16.20 | Online