Penny Morrill and her husband guided their 40-foot Concordia Yawl out of Boston in April 1976, headed for Florida. A blinding snowstorm complicated matters and made the destination seem even more appealing.
The plan: Relax awhile with family near St. Petersburg and then head on down to live in the Caribbean. But after three months aboard a 40-footer, Penny had lost interest in a nautical lifestyle. At 29, she resumed a nursing career, unaware that her future held an even more important calling.
For 27 years, Morrill has been the most visible and effective advocate in Pasco County for protecting women against domestic violence. She has grown and guided a fledgling nonprofit agency into a statewide model of success, helping to stiffen laws and secure funds for shelters, counseling and prevention.
She has saved lives.
And now it's time to let somebody else do it. By the end of June, Morrill no longer will be the chief executive of Sunrise of Pasco County Inc. She'll stick around for a few months to consult on a building project at the Dade City campus, but then it's off to retirement.
She gets emotional just thinking about it.
"It's my baby,'' she said last week in between interruptions by well-wishers during lunch at Mallie Kyla's Cafe. "It feels like I'm grieving because I love this place and all the people. But it's time.''
She's leaving to spend more time with her husband, Dave, 75, who for three decades has given her strength to deal with a tough job that comes with regular heartbreak. "He's had some health issues,'' she said, "and I don't want to miss any more time together.''
Penny met Dave shortly after she gave up sailing and the first husband. Dave, a mechanic, worked on her car and stole her heart. While Penny has personified Sunrise, "the agency has been as much a part of him,'' she said.
Shortly after she took over the agency in 1986, she met a young woman who had been beaten by her husband. She came to the tiny Sunrise office on the third floor of Dade City's government complex with a young daughter and hoped to catch a bus to Texas the next morning.
"We had no shelter for her,'' Penny said, "so I asked Dave if I could bring her home for the night. She was a beautiful woman, but she had been beaten to a pulp. Dave took one look at her and said, 'What son-of-a-bitch would do something like this?' We got her on the bus the next day.''
Within two years, Morrill and other Dade City leaders had secured a permanent shelter for Sunrise. She thought the 10-bed facility would be sufficient for a long time, but on that first Christmas Eve, 24 women packed into the house with their children. "Total chaos,'' she recalled.
When Morrill joined Sunrise, she was the only employee and had a $30,000 budget. She leaves an agency with 43 employees, a $1.5 million budget and a sparkling new administrative center. She will hand off to Kelly Sinn, the chief operations officer Morrill has groomed as her successor, but will stick around long enough to oversee construction that will expand the shelter from 24 to 40 beds.
This place that started so simply has grown under Morrill's leadership to include the county's only free sexual assault counseling program. It has changed the way law enforcement reacts and joined with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence to convince the state Legislature to fund programs and expansion. It has raised awareness that abuse comes in many forms, not always violent, and that it is never acceptable. It has lifted the self-esteem of so many women and helped them find better lives.
Quite a legacy for a woman who had just planned to sail through.