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YWCA leader looks to future


When a young waiter approached Janis Harvey at a Tennessee restaurant last year, she did not recognize him. Even as he sat down and began to talk, she struggled to place his face.

Considering the circumstances, who could blame her?

It had been almost a decade since Harvey - then the chief operating officer of the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee - had seen the man, then a troubled boy being helped by the organization and who had been shuffled among dozens of foster homes. At the time, his behavior was so disruptive that most of the people who cared for him had given up hope.

"If I had to bet on whether or not he would succeed, I admit I would have bet against him," said Harvey, 54. "There were no indications that we were helping him at all."

But Harvey did help. And the boy grew into a hopeful, goal-oriented student waiting tables to pay his way through college.

"He recalled specific conversations I had with him," Harvey said. "It was such a gift to see him and know that he was OK and that I - and others - helped him get through a time in his life that was just horrific."

It's these types of stories that Harvey looks to for inspiration as she makes the transition into her new job as chief executive of the YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. She began work in December, succeeding Michele Hughes, executive director for four years.

After a six-month search, the organization's 30-member board hired Harvey to run the YWCA branch, headquartered in Arnold. Harvey is the first woman of color to hold the job.

"The decision says more about the board than it does about me," said Harvey, whose face is framed by closely cropped hair. "They were able to avoid the blinders and barriers that come with bias and prejudice."

Board members said Harvey was the most exceptional of the 120 applicants.

"We were so blown away by her," said Penny Cantwell, vice president of the YWCA branch. "We were looking for the best one for the job, and she was it. Color was not an issue."

Harvey brings with her four years of experience at the YWCA in Tennessee, where she oversaw a staff of 80 and an annual budget of more than $4 million. Before the YWCA, she worked at a mental health care center for children.

In addition to her professional experience, Harvey said she comes from a family of volunteers.

"I am, by nature, politically and socially active," she said. "From as early as I can remember, it was important for us to give back to the community."

Born in Nashville, Harvey spent some of her teen years living in Baltimore and Columbia, where she says her parents encouraged her and her three siblings to volunteer. Her mother worked at a mental hospital, and her father, a pharmacist, once ran for city council in Tennessee.

Although Harvey has not lived in Maryland since she was a teen, she said the transition to her new home in Hanover - and her new job - has been relatively easy.

Harvey said she will focus her immediate goals on boosting funding for the YWCA, currently operating on a $2.4 million budget.

"Like many nonprofits, we have to work to find substantial funding," she said. "My challenge is to look to community investors and donors, and solicit the kind of partnerships that will give us financial security."

Harvey also plans to expand the job training program, and to encourage more women to seek shelter through the organization if they are being physically or emotionally abused.

In her spare time, Harvey - who holds a master's degree in clinical and community psychology from Fisk University in Nashville - enjoys bird watching, photography and painting.

With her new position, however, Harvey said her free time is limited.

"I don't mind," she said. "I don't know how to say this without sounding cliched, but my work really is a labor of love."

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