The Friendship Center is about changing lives and fresh beginnings. And new director Robyn Morrison is skilled at doing just that.
A successful Helena entrepreneur and business woman, she decided at age 50 to return to college to earn a master of divinity degree at the Pacific School of Religion-University of California at Berkeley.
An ordained minister, she recently served as a pastor in Kimberly, Idaho, and was a youth minister in Salem, Ore.
But she welcomed the opportunity to return to Helena to take the helm of The Friendship Center as executive director in February.
The public will get an opportunity to meet Morrison at the upcoming Empty Bowls fundraiser, 4:30 to 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 3, at the Lewis & Clark County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall (see sidebar for details).
She just might be one of the people you meet ladling one of those delicious soups into your beautiful bowl made by a local potter.
“I knew about the organization, and the work that it does is very close to my heart,” she said. “To lead an organization that provides a presence for women and families, people who are experiencing crisis, to have that ability to help them transform their life is as much of a calling as you’re going to find.
“This is where I think Jesus would be ... he was always with the marginalized and the oppressed. ... Women who are battered and abused and living with that kind of violence are in need of the services that the Friendship Center provides.”
She speaks not just as a minister, but as a survivor.
“I consider myself a survivor of an abusive marriage,” she said. It happened in her first marriage when she was in her early 30s and living in Havre.
“And that experience of being a survivor is a continuum. I do know how challenging it is to leave a marriage — something you’ve given your word to.
“I really understand the victim’s need for confidentiality and safety and how isolating domestic violence and sexual violence is. It’s very close to my heart. ... in my path I have been able to share my story of survival with many women in a way that gave them hope.”
Her passion for this work is something she shares with her daughter Kelsen Young, director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, who has been working in this field for 15 years.
“Am I following in my daughter’s footsteps? I think that’s probably the case. It’s her life’s work. I’ve seen the difference she has made. My daughter inspires me all the time.”
One thing that’s particularly moved her is the strong community and business support for The Friendship Center, which is not necessarily the case for shelters in other states. “That’s one of the things I love about Montana,” she said.
“Domestic violence and sexual violence touches so many lives,” she said, “it’s hard to get away from it when one out of every four women will experience intimate-partner violence in their life.”
The Friendship Center serves a five county area — Lewis & Clark, Broadwater, Jefferson, Meagher and Powell — providing safe shelter and support services to those experiencing domestic and sexual violence and support services to help them rebuild their lives.
In 2011 the center helped 576 adults and 387 children, providing 3,531 nights of safe shelter. It answered 1,882 crisis line calls and offered 725 in-person crisis counseling sessions. In addition it offered 638 group services for adults and 183 group services for children. An estimated 10 percent of the victims helped were men.
To many, Morrison will be a familiar face when they meet her Tuesday night. From 1989 to 2005, the Havre native lived in Helena.
She started her career as a certified public accountant and worked at several jobs in state government, including state director of Small Business Development Centers and MicroBusiness Finance program officer at the Department of Commerce.
“What started to evolve,” she said, “was this leaning toward social enterprise — using the same sense of financial integrity and trying to get the best return on your resources. I tried to transfer that to organizations that have missions.”
Morrison left state government to work as director of Christian Formation and Program at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church from 2003 to 2005, which would lead to her decision to go to divinity school. She also started her own business, Biz Savvy, a consulting and coaching service for business and organization leaders.
Community support, including the Empty Bowls benefit, is essential to the center’s survival, particularly as it faces ever increasing competition for smaller and scarcer pots of state and federal grant money.
“Empty Bowls is our largest fundraiser,” she said. The money raised is used as the center’s local match, when it applies for grants.
One change she’d like to bring about as director is to find more ways for more community volunteers to be involved in the center.
“The more people who know about The Friendship Center and the wider we cast a net of awareness of sexual and domestic violence — the greater the chance a friend or relative of a victim will get them the help they need.”