When Jane Harper came to work for Family Resources in 1980, she understood why teens were running away from home, even if the general public did not.
“They were looked at as not being abused kids, they were looked at as just being renegades,” said Roy Miller, who hired Harper to join the Pinellas County-based nonprofit. “Those were the days when child abuse was not talked about publicly. It was whispered about.”
Family Resources, then Alternative Human Services, was at the forefront of exposing why kids were running away, Miller said, and Harper came in with a background of working in domestic violence.
Along with her colleagues, Harper expanded the program, gave it focus, spun off a crisis hotline and grew the number of shelters around the state for at-risk youth. In the late 1980s, about 10 existed, Tampa Bay Newspapers reported. By 2012, there were 28.
Harper, 75, died July 7 of mesothelioma.
A few decades ago, kids who’d run away from their homes were called “runaway, truant and ungovernable,” said Pat Gerard, a Pinellas County commissioner who previously worked with Harper at Family Services.
Harper, who was private about her personal life, could relate.
“She used to talk about how she was an ungovernable youth at that age,” Gerard said. “I think that’s part of where her dedication to that population came from.”
Harper’s sister, Libby Howze, remembers that time. Their family moved to Florida from New York when Harper was in eighth grade. There was a recession. And a lot of her classmates seemed adrift.
In middle school, Harper lit firecrackers on the school bus.
“She got suspended for a week for that,” Howze said.
But once Harper got involved in sports at Boca Ciega High School, things settled down, and soon, she’d start to find her place.
Harper studied psychology, got her master’s degree in counseling from the University of South Florida and “always had an interest in people, how their minds worked and how they behaved,” she told Tampa Bay Newspapers in 2012.
She worked at CASA, a program in Pinellas County for victims of domestic violence, before joining Family Resources. By 1988, she was that organization’s CEO and president.
“I was hopeful that these young people would have the opportunity to overcome the disadvantages in their lives,” Harper said in 2012, “and that I could help families resolve their problems.”
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Molly Sperandio worked for 15 years as Harper’s executive assistant. Any time Sperandio got her dander up about one thing or another, Harper would remind her: “Now Molly, be nice.”
Harper was professional, but she fought for the programs she believed in, Sperandio said.
Harper practiced quiet leadership, her sister said, and brought people together locally, across the state and nationwide to address problems faced by children and families. Her work included securing funding, sharing best practices and spreading awareness.
“She took that broad leadership approach,” Howze said, “and she was always giving other people credit.”
Harper retired in 2014. In St. Petersburg, the shelter Harper’s Haven was named after her. She moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and continued doing the things she loved, including playing tennis, hiking and being in nature.
“While Jane will long be remembered for her tremendous contributions at a state and national level, her unwavering commitment and leadership at Family Resources made a positive difference for so many children and families in our community,” said Lisa Davis, president and CEO of Family Resources, which now serves Pinellas and Manatee counties. “Her incredible passion and high standards remain the cornerstone of our philosophy today.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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