New Lawrence Community Shelter executive director ‘craves’ nonprofit work

Lawrence Community Shelter, 3655 E. 25th St.

Sarah Jane Russell says she will satisfy a craving when she starts Tuesday as the new executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter.

“Being in the world of nonprofits is habit-forming,” she said. “When you see the community and see people who you think could benefit from services and have the chance to be part of a team effort, you jump on it.”

The shelter’s board of directors announced Saturday it hired Russell as executive director. Jackie Counts, board president, said it was Russell’s career in social services in Lawrence and record of accomplishments that made her stand out among the 17 candidates for the position.

Counts said Russell was active in starting institutional responses to community concerns with her founding roles in the Fairy Godmother Fund and 100 Good Women, two Lawrence nonprofits that provide support for those in need. She also served as longtime director of Douglas County Rape Victim Support Services, which is now incorporated with the Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center.

“Sarah Jane has a long history of service in the community,” Counts said. “She has a passion for the community. She is well known as being a solution-focused activator.”

Its staff requires those staying at the shelter to take part in programming to address substance abuse and joblessness, with the goal of being able to sustain permanent housing when they leave. Russell said it was the shelter’s transformative mission that made the position appealing to her.

“That is why I’m excited — to be part of an agency that is committed to that very thing,” she said. “To be part of that. I’ve seen the magic Lawrence can do when we all work together. I’ve felt that and seen that.”

She’s not new to the shelter, Russell said. She served on the board for two months before engaging in the “great experiment” of moving back to her roots in north central Kansas, she said. When she returned to Lawrence, she kept track of the shelter’s progress and struggles, she said.

Those struggles have included financial woes and instability in leadership. The shelter has had three leaders since longtime shelter director Loring Henderson retired in May 2014. The most recent executive director, Trey Meyer, served 23 months before the board fired him in October 2017 for undisclosed reasons.

Russell said it was her goal to bring stable leadership to the shelter and its staff.

“I’m planted here for as long as they’ll have me,” Russell said. “I’m willing to stand tall. My first impression when I met the staff — I just saw a really strong commitment to the mission of the shelter.”

In 2016, the Lawrence City Commission agreed to help the shelter with emergency aid of $50,000 after the shelter board told commissioners the nonprofit agency was almost insolvent. Douglas County provided another $50,000. In April 2017, the shelter requested the city forgive about $280,000 in debt it owes from a 2013 loan. The city ultimately rejected that request.

Russell is prepared to help with the financial challenge, she said.

“When you’re involved with a nonprofit, you wear many hats,” she said. “One of those is always that of grant writer. I’ll certainly be working with the current board in writing grants and fundraising. I think it will be me and everyone on the board with our sleeves rolled up and ready to get involved, which is the way it has to be to make change.”