Executive director of Hope Harbor discusses her role in the organization

Melissa Whitley is the executive director of Hope Harbor, a non-profit organization which provides support services to sexual assault and abuse victim.

Olivia Mohr

WHERE HOPE GROWS

Prior to her work as executive director of Hope Harbor, a sexual trauma recovery center, Melissa Whitley, 39, did fundraising and development for another nonprofit organization called Christian Care Community. She discovered that she enjoyed working for nonprofit organizations.

“I liked working in the nonprofit world,” she said. “I liked having a mission that I was passionate about.”

Whitley was born in Columbia, Kentucky in 1977. She became executive director of Hope Harbor in April 2007 after a friend suggested she pursue the position. Before she became executive director, she was familiar with Hope Harbor because she took part in some of its events and had friends who were involved. She said the passion the staff had for their work and the fact  she had friends who had been affected by sexual assault inspired her to pursue the position of executive director.

“I think a lot of it had to do with meeting a lot of the staff during some of those events and seeing the passion that they had for the work that they did, and then just having friends and others that had been touched by sexual violence played a big role in that as well,” Whitley said.

Hope Harbor provides services for victims of sexual assault including education and prevention, mental health and counseling services, legal advocacy, a 24-hour crisis hotline and emergency advocacy. It serves the Barren River Development District, which consists of Allen, Barren, Butler, Edmonson, Hart, Logan, Metcalfe, Monroe, Simpson and Warren counties in Kentucky.

Because it is a nonprofit organization, it receives much of its funding from federal, state and local grants. Whitley does much of the grant writing so Hope Harbor can continue to offer its services for free. She also helps with the 24-hour crisis line, makes sure staff and volunteers receive training, with long-term strategic planning, with community education about sexual assault and providing information and support for survivors of sexual assault.

As executive director of Hope Harbor, Whitley said she also represents Hope Harbor on a state level by serving as a board member for the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs. Through the state organization, she is part of the decision-making on a state level in efforts against sexual violence.

“It’s something that I get so proud of, and I enjoy doing a lot,” she said.

Whitley said one of the biggest challenges Hope Harbor faces is with funding because it is not always consistent, and she said the agency has not grown as quickly as she hoped.

One of Hope Harbor’s challenges has been a large increase in the employer share of the Kentucky Retirement System over the last 10 years, Whitely said.

“I had to make difficult decisions when hiring where positions were transitioned to part time, but with the increase of federal grant funds, we have been able to grow the staff despite the hardships,” Whitley said.

Whitley said Hope Harbor now has the largest staff they’ve had in 10 years, and she said she is glad to have a staff that is “so passionate about their work.”

Whitley said she believes one of the biggest achievements Hope Harbor has made in her time as executive director is its involvement in the “Green Dot” primary prevention program to reduce power-based personal violence. It began as a research study at the University of Kentucky funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whitley said Hope Harbor and other rape crisis centers then adapted the program for high schools. Hope Harbor has been implementing it at Warren East High School since 2010 and is expanding to Bowling Green High School. The program aims to educate students about sexual assault and its effects to help prevent cases of sexual violence perpetration and victimization.

Whitley hopes Hope Harbor will get more people involved in sexual assault prevention and education efforts.

“I think one of my hopes for our agency is to find more ways to get others involved in this movement of believing and supporting survivors and understanding that this is an issue that has to be discussed from a very early age,” she said.

April Murphy, president of Hope Harbor’s Board of Directors and assistant professor in the department of social work at Western Kentucky University, has been on the Board of Directors for about three and a half years, and it is her second term as president. She said Whitley is passionate about her work and about helping victims.

“I really think that Melissa is probably one of the most amazing women that I have ever met just in terms of her endless energy and passion, and just commitment to making a safer community for survivors or victims of sexual assault,” Murphy said.

She said Whitley pours energy and passion into all her work with Hope Harbor, including writing grants, going to community events, training volunteers and recruiting new volunteers. Murphy said though Whitley makes little money for the work she does, she puts in a lot of effort, and “that comes down to her character and integrity as a person.”

Kim Wilson, who has been a member of the Board of Directors for five years, said Whitley helps survivors with perseverance and passion.

“She remains passionate for survivors after all these years,” Wilson said. “I’ve worked for the state, I’ve worked in different capacities, and for all of us, it’s really easy to somewhat lose the intensity of what you’re working for, and she never has.”

She said she has not heard Whitley complain while she does any of her work, no matter what it is.

“She can clean the bathroom or speak at a fundraising dinner and be glad to do any of it,” Wilson said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever heard her complain.”

Wilson said Whitley makes sure Hope Harbor’s therapists are trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which is a practice for trauma victims. Although training is an extra expense for the organization, Wilson said Whitley believes it is important to make sure therapists are well-trained to work with victims.

Wilson said she respects Whitley’s view of sexual assault.

“I think one of the things I respect about Melissa is she really genuinely views sexual assault as a community problem, and so she takes every opportunity to speak to any size group to educate the community and be a presence in the community,” Wilson said.

Reporter Olivia Mohr can be reached at 270-745-6288 and [email protected]