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Q&A with Harbor House Executive Director Jenny Schoenwetter

October 13, 2018

Jenny Schoenwetter, of Bourbonnais, started her role as executive director of Harbor House in August of this year.

How does she describe the experience up until now? “It’s been a whirlwind.”

Schoenwetter received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Olivet Nazarene University, focusing on business administration, accounting and nonprofit management for her undergrad work. Her MBA work mainly focused on nonprofits.

The Daily Journal met with Schoenwetter inside the highly protected location of Harbor House to discuss what prompted her to get into this field,what the executive director of Harbor House does and what she wants everyone to know about Harbor House.

What was your job before this?

After undergrad, Olivet hired me to do fundraising. I started in the Office of Development as coordinator for development and ended as the director of Annual Giving. I did higher education fundraising there for quite a few years, and then joined the team over here.

Why choose to go into a profession that can obviously be heavy on a person’s emotions?

This position aligned with my personal mission. I’m a strong believer and was raised to advocate for those who often are timid, overlooked and especially women. I recall when my mom woke us kids up — I think I was in junior high at the time — in the middle of the night to go help a woman move out of her home because her abuser was gone for a couple hours. We threw all of her belongings and the belongings of her four kids into my parents van, and they lived with us for a couple months.

There are lots of other times where my parents displayed that importance of helping others, no matter the sacrifice to us. I wasn’t a big fan of having four younger kids in the house, but helping other people was instilled in me at a very young age.

What does your role as executive director entail?

A lot of things. In general, I oversee business operations, focusing a lot on increasing funding sources. If you have no money, you have no mission. I’m the mouthpiece for the organization. I do presentations, training and anything that relates to community relations.

Something I’m working on right now is a “listening tour.” I’m meeting with lots of different corporate community leaders and other nonprofit agencies to get their perspectives on how Harbor House fits into this community, how we can better serve clients and how we can better collaborate.

I lead the staff here, and we focus on morale and teamwork. It’s a difficult job. There are days where we all go home and think, “Why did I sign up for this?” but then we’re reminded of that because it’s a family here among the staff and the survivors. My goal is to make sure they stay healthy because if we’re not at our best, they we’re not going to be doing a good job in connecting and serving people.

What do you plan to implement now that you’re in this role?

The best days for Harbor House are ahead of us, and I’m so excited for the future. There’s things that I want to work toward, and there’s things that are more in the here and now. A big priority for me is focusing a lot more on prevention and training. I do think that we can realize a day without domestic violence, but it takes a lot of effort to get there.

I’d love to see us in every school in the community, in Kankakee and Iroquois counties, because we serve both. I’d like to focus on what healthy relationships look like, especially among teens. What are some red flags that you need to look for in a relationship? If we can nip that in the bud, that might make services like these not as necessary. We have fantastic partnerships with law enforcement, the state’s attorney’s office and the hospitals. We do training with the police so when they arrive on the scene of a domestic violence situation, they’ll know how to properly respond and they’ll be trauma-informed.

Strengthening the brand and image of Harbor House. The team has done a phenomenal job operating on the resources, but I think we can shift that and work more in the 21st century. Better utilizing technology, getting new marketing materials and doing an awareness campaign that ushers us into a better, stronger business operation. I’d also like to decrease the dependency on government funds, and increase other opportunities with foundation grants, private donors and other creative revenue streams.

What do monetary and physical donations mean to anyone who is staying at Harbor House?

We have a very generous community. For example, paper products. You don’t think about it, but when we have a shelter that houses 12, plus transitional apartments that house more, plus a staff that’s here 24/7. We go through a lot of paper towels and toilet paper. If we’re able to not divert funds toward that and instead focus more on other ways we can use that money, that can free up a significant amount of funds. We have some very generous folks who help us out and buy groceries so we don’t have full-time staff members going to do that.

Lowe’s (Home Improvement), came out and donated all the materials and built a new playground and sitting area outside. They took two days. Our past playset just made me very nervous because it was aged. They made the outside just look very welcoming. Our facilities here are very tight, and we wanted to see how we could be more welcoming and accommodating to survivors of domestic violence who are escaping these horrendous situations. The last thing you want to do is walk into a place that feels institutional. Donations and volunteers help us do that. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to serve the people we do.

What can people expect from Harbor House during October — National Domestic Violence Awareness Month?

We have purple ribbons we’ve hung throughout the community, and if someone doesn’t have one yet and they’d like to hang it in a business, we’ll help them do that. (Attached to the ribbons are cards listing the services Harbor House provides, along with their hotline number and different statistics about domestic violence and abuse.) That’s used to increase awareness because a lot of people think, “It’s just the low income that are affected by this,” but everyone is affected by domestic violence. It’s one of the few things that does not discriminate. We want to open people’s eyes to that.

We also have our empowerment walk coming up on the last Saturday of this month where we’ll have a couple of survivors come and share their story. We also have a volunteer group that’s going and hanging informational tear-off sheets in every bathroom around this community. Oftentimes, the only time a survivor can be by herself or himself is when they’re in a restroom. Every public restroom in every restaurant is our dream, but even in dressing rooms or massage parlors. If you’re a business that wants one, we’d love to get them to you. They’re little small sheets, so they can easily hide it so the abuser won’t know they have it.

Just before the summer, Harbor House received a brand new roof from Langlois Roofing Inc. Is Harbor House in need of anything else?

This holiday season, we’re launching an Adopt a Family or Area program. Historically, our incredibly generous community has “adopted” survivors at Christmastime to get them gifts. This year, we’re expanding the program to Adopt an Area here at the shelter. Many of our current spaces (kids area, kitchen, shelter rooms, etc.), haven’t been updated in years, so we’ll be promoting different spaces that individuals or community groups can adopt. We provide suggestions on the items needed to best serve survivors of domestic violence. It’s impact on survivors is going to be significant because we want to provide high-quality living areas to match our high-quality services. This will make survivors feel more comfortable, welcome and ready to begin the healing and freedom process.

If you want the public to know one thing about Harbor House, what would that be?

Although our location is confidential and oftentimes domestic violence is hidden, we are not. We are here, and we want every person in this community to know what we do and to know who Harbor House is. If you’re in a domestic violence situation, we never want you to wonder where you can turn. We want to be the first people who come to your mind. To be highly accessible and to know that when you come here, you’ll be cared for, respected and you’re going to start the healing process; that could take years, but when you land here, that’s what’s going to happen.

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