SPRING HILL — About eight years ago, during her first stint at the Dawn Center, Shannon Sokolowski encountered a client she still thinks about today.
The woman came to the nonprofit shelter as most clients do, fleeing an abusive husband. She had three young children in tow, a fourth on the way, little money and few possessions.
Over the course of her stay at the center's shelter, the woman landed a job as a convenience store clerk and saved enough money to rent an apartment for her family. The Dawn Center gave her a donated minivan painted bright blue.
"Every time I see a van like that, I look inside to see if it's her," says Sokolowski, who was the center's director of programs at the time.
A few career moves later, Sokolowski has come full circle. The Dawn Center's board of directors recently selected the 31-year-old Spring Hill resident to serve as executive director.
Her first official day was Sept. 10.
"It felt a lot like coming home," Sokolowski said during a recent interview in her office next door to the shelter, an eight-bedroom home at an undisclosed location to protect clients.
"I fell in love with this work here," she said.
In some ways, though, the center is a very different place than when Sokolowski left in 2005, and the changes mean challenges for the new leader as she works to help the agency recover financially.
Seven years ago, Hernando was still booming, and the Dawn Center finished the fiscal year with a cash surplus. Then the economy collapsed and the recession took its toll as the center's two primary sources of revenue — grant funding and donations — dried up.
In 2008, the center's budget included revenues of about $578,000 and a deficit of nearly $107,000, tax records show. At the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, the most recent record available, the deficit was a little under $1,200.
The center has nearly tapped out its line of credit, said Randy Woodruff, a Brooksville accountant who has prepared the center's audits for the last several years. It carries some debt, but is not drowning it. And it owns its property free and clear.
"I would say the organization has stabilized, and I am very optimistic about the future," Woodruff said. "Three years ago, I was not very optimistic."
Sokolowski's career experience, connection to the community and familiarity with the shelter will help her build momentum, said Liz Jennings, president of the center's board of directors.
"I do see light at the end of the tunnel, and I feel very positive with Shannon as our executive director," Jennings said. "She's already been out in the community, and I've gotten positive feedback. I just truly feel she's a positive asset to our facility."
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Born in Michigan, Sokolowski was a toddler when her family moved to Dunedin and 6 years old when they arrived in Spring Hill.
The oldest of three girls, Sokolowski was part of J.D. Floyd Elementary's first graduating class, attended Powell Middle School, and graduated from Springstead High in 1999.
Considering a career as a therapist, Sokolowski majored in psychology at the University of Central Florida. She took a class in victimology that opened her eyes to other career possibilities.
"Being victimized by any kind of crime damages people on many levels," she said. "The capacity to heal from tragedy and to overcome it … I was inspired by that."
She earned her degree in 2003, moved back to Spring Hill and answered phones as a volunteer at the Dawn Center. She was invited to interview for the shelter manager post, got the job and was soon promoted to director of programs.
Seeking a job with more traditional hours so she could go back for her master's degree, Sokolowski moved to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay in Tampa, where she served as a social work case manager before a promotion to program manager. The center provides assistance to families facing a variety of challenges, especially financial issues.
After four years there, she took a job as program coordinator for the Family Justice Center in Tampa, where she acted as a liaison to about 20 partner agencies that collectively offer a range of services, from legal aid to mental health counseling.
Meanwhile, the Dawn Center was in turmoil. The board ousted executive director Grace Maineri in January 2011 after just nine months. Board members said she didn't get a handle on the troubled finances. Maineri told the Tampa Bay Times then that she had made progress but wasn't given enough time.
A few months later, the board brought in an interim director, Kelly Sinn. The chief operating officer for Sunrise of Pasco County, another domestic violence shelter, Sinn worked for free. Board members credit her with stoking progress at the Dawn Center, even while holding both jobs.
In July of this year, the board tapped a Pennsylvania professional named David Hyde to take the Dawn Center's reins. Hyde resigned after a week, apparently concerned about the center's tenuous financial situation. He couldn't be reached for comment for this story.
By then, Sokolowski and her husband, Aaron, a pest control technician for a local company, had celebrated the birth of their first child. Sokolowski rued the two hours of commuting time she could have been spending with her family.
She tried to apply for the Dawn Center position before the board hired Hyde, but her resume never arrived. When the job came vacant again, she made sure board members knew she was interested.
Lana Jarrette has worked at the center for a dozen years, the last six of them as shelter supervisor. She was there when Sokolowski arrived as a volunteer.
"You either can do this work or you cannot do it," Jarrette said. "There's no in between, and she can do it. I truly believe she's the one who's going to make this work."
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When Sokolowski left in 2005, the center was in the middle of a capital improvement program to increase the capacity from 29 to 42 beds for women and children.
The occupancy rate changes daily. Sometimes half the beds are empty. One day last week, they were full.
Unsolicited donors are reaching out to help, said Sokolowski, who is being paid $53,000 a year.
She has big plans.
She wants to start a fundraising committee to come up with a signature annual event to boost the balance sheet.
She plans to create an electronic newsletter, reactivate the center's dormant Facebook page and update the website.
She also wants to help coordinate and expand resources in the county, resurrecting domestic violence and sexual assault task forces comprised of stakeholders from the medical, law enforcement, legal and social services fields.
"These are not social problems we at the Dawn Center are going to solve by ourselves. They're too big," she said. "We need the community to embrace the issues."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] (352) 848-1431.