When a call of rape comes in to the Dawn Center, nurse Elizabeth "Liz" Jennings is at the ready. And has been for some 20 years.
For her work, Jennings, 60, was honored at a gala earlier this month as the first Building Hope Hero of the Year by Habitat for Humanity of Hernando County, an effort by Habitat to recognize other volunteer groups that help families navigate the paths that lead to stable, productive lives as well as home ownership.
Jennings has worked as a registered nurse at Oak Hill Hospital since 1991, and currently serves in quality management and as coordinator of Oak Hill's infection prevention program. But it is Jennings' volunteerism with the Dawn Center, which grew out of her hospital employment, that led to the Hero honor.
Currently president of the board of directors for the domestic abuse shelter, Jennings oversees all of its programs, yet remains on call 24/7 to respond when a sexual assault call comes in over the hotline or from law enforcement. Originally, she was the hospital's liaison to the Dawn Center.
A sexual assault call might be likened to a "code blue" order in a hospital, precipitating a scramble to assemble a team of specialists to respond to an emergency. Jennings' role is medical.
"Going out in the middle of the night to do a physical exam is very emotional," she said, "not only for the victim, but all the individuals involved. The victims are always grateful for the nurse and all.
"We take our time with them, compassionate with the way we ask personal questions. It can take two to three hours for exams and questioning, to collect evidence."
Added shelter director Shannon Sokolowski: "The exam itself can be invasive and intense. You have to be a soft, comfortable presence talking about it and collecting data. Liz definitely is that person. She puts (victims) at ease. She is a soft, gentle soul. Even if you don't know her, you immediately feel she's your friend."
As for Jennings' role as board president, Sokolowski said, "It's great to be under her leadership right now. Some board members are there because they understand financials, or services, for instance. But Liz understands all those things, so that's wonderful."
In nominating Jennings for the Habitat Hero honor, Leanne Salazar, Oak Hill's vice president of quality and risk management, noted Jennings' work at the Dawn Center in fundraising, donating appreciation gifts to staffers and residents, collaborating with local businesses to provide services at the shelter, organizing donation drives, attending educational programs and teaching classes.
At the Hero dinner-dance gala, Jennings reported that the Dawn Center has provided safe shelter from domestic and sexual violence to nearly 400 women and children this year. It has counseled an additional 600 adults and children who didn't come to the center, answered almost 2,400 phone calls, developed 3,773 safety plans for victims and assisted 2,605 survivors through support groups. It operates with 14 paid employees and some 40 volunteers.
Of the numbers, Jennings said, "That's part of the success. That's overwhelming, isn't it?"
Salazar also mentioned in her nomination Jennings' community service work with the education foundation of Hernando County Business and Professional Women, her participation in American Lung Association fundraisers and certification to teach Freedom from Smoking classes.
Jennings, a native of the Boston area and a 20-year Floridian, holds a bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of South Florida and a master's of business administration from the University of Phoenix. She and her husband of 38 years, Randy Jennings, have two adult children.
Debbie Prescott, community resource director of Habitat for Humanity, said her organization was "very, very pleased" with the turnout of 130 people for the gala and the raising of funds with which Habitat will build more affordable housing in Hernando County.
"Our goal was $4,000 for Habitat. I think we met or exceeded our goal," she said.
Big donors that contributed $500 each to sponsor three Hero nominees included Crystal Chrysler Automotive and Monster Transmission, both of Brooksville, and Chick-fil-A of Spring Hill.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]