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Leader, Mother, Advocate, Friend: Community bids farewell as Harbor House Executive Director resigns

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This year will be Gail Garland’s 20th year at Harbor House.

For all those years, she has labored to make sure the organization provides a vitally important service to the community — particularly to the children of the community.

Garland is leaving Harbor House in the coming weeks as her family moves away from Rome. And it is evident that the work she has done has been invaluable to the organization and to the community in general.

“As executive director, Gail oversees all operations, finances, program management, clinical services, community outreach and education for Harbor House,” said Kelly Perry, Administrator at Harbor House who works closely with Garland on a day-to-day basis. “She began here in administration and moved up. She manages our larger grants that pay for most of what we do. It would take me a very long time to list all the things Gail does.”

What makes Garland’s (and her staff’s) work so important is that Harbor House is a safe, comforting place to evaluate children who have been the victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse or who have been witnesses to crime. Harbor House is the place those children are taken to be interviewed. So it absolutely must be a place that is warm and soothing and safe.

For the past 20 years, Garland has ensured that it is.

Harbor House also offers an outreach program called SAFE which goes out into local elementary schools talking to kids about personal and body safety as well as bullying. And it serves not only Floyd County but all of Northwest Georgia.

“Gail has a heart for it, and that’s the bottom line,” Perry said. “She has to, to be doing this so long and to be so good at it. She creates a very friendly environment for us to work in and guides us to do better work which in turn helps the children and the community. I have a great deal of respect for her.”

Perry said one thing Garland does well is that she recognizes the difficult and delicate nature of the job they do and allows staff the time and space to process a tough case or a difficult story or just a bad day. Garland makes sure everyone is in the right frame of mind to best help the children who need comfort and support.

But Garland’s responsibilities extend far beyond the walls of Harbor House. As its executive director, she must be the organization’s face and voice to the community and the region. She is its representative to its board of directors, numerous agencies and the community at large.

One of the agencies with with she interacts is the Floyd County Commission on Children and Youth. That group’s coordinator, Carol Willis, said she has known Garland for many years and has observed her work at Harbor House and in the community with great admiration.

“Gail Garland is an amazing professional,” Willis said. “She is a good leader and relates so well to the community. We’ve always been interested in Harbor House because it fills such a huge need. Gail had great role models when she began working there and now as executive director she has garnered so much respect for what that organization is doing.”

Willis kept repeating the word “professional” when describing Garland, saying she is an excellent communicator. And although the nature of Harbor House’s work demands delicacy and discretion, Garland manages to speak out publicly on behalf of Harbor House with grace and sensitivity.

“A huge void will be left when Gail leaves,” Willis added. “Harbor House is something every community I know of is envious of. And Gail is a huge part of what has made that organization run so well. She has certainly made a significant mark on our community.”

In many cases, the information gained through the Harbor House interviews is then passed on to law enforcement. District Attorney Leigh Patterson and Chief Assistant District Attorney Martha Jacobs both agreed that Garland is perfectly suited to her role as a child advocate.

“Gail has a heart for victims,” Patterson said. “She is a great mother and loves all children. She has a heart for this kind of work because she is a wonderful, caring person and that shows through.”

Jacobs said Garland has a tough job to do, coordinating various agencies toward a common goal.

“She is very good at building agreement and camaraderie,” Jacobs said. “The different agencies don’t always see eye to eye. We all have our different interests and those may not line up all the time. But Gail is so good at building concensus and finding common goals that she finds a way to get everyone on the same page and working toward a positive outcome. Not everyone can do that.”

It appears that when Gail Garland walks out the Harbor House doors for the last time as director, she will be leaving some mighty big shoes to fill. Yes, she is responsible for much of the administration and paperwork and public outreach for the center, but a capable individual will no doubt step in and pick up where she left off.

However, where the community will feel Garland’s absence most keenly is in a less tangible manner.

“When I heard that Gail would be leaving it broke my heart,” Patterson said. “I’m happy for her family but sad for our community. This is a huge loss for us. She truly cares about her staff, about the victims and about the law enforcement officers who sometimes have to deal with these terrible crimes. She’s just an angel and there’s no way to replace that.”