After 20 years at the helm of Harbor Inc., Keri Christensen is taking her fight against domestic violence and sexual assault to neighboring Wake County.
Looking back on her time in Johnston, Christensen said it’s incredible to think her work touched the lives of thousands of women and children.
“It brings tears to my eyes to think about everybody who has allowed me to be in their life because they’ve come and trusted me and the agency to help them find support and safety,” she said.
And while her new job will take her to Raleigh every day, Christensen said she will still come home to Johnston every night.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “Johnston County will continue to be my home, and I will continue to be a part of the community and to support Harbor.”
On a recent Monday, Harbor held a reception to bid farewell to Christensen, who in many ways became synonymous with the organization. About 50 people came to the Bistro on Third in Smithfield to say goodbye, share memories and shed a few tears together.
For her next chapter, Christensen will work as associate executive director of programs at InterAct, a nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Wake. InterAct has 150 volunteers, more than 40 employees and a 45-bed residential shelter, according to the group’s website.
Christensen will oversee all of InterAct’s direct services, including the shelter and the solace center, which provides 24/7 services to rape victims. Christensen said she will learn the full extent of her duties once she begins work.
Above all, Christensen said her new role will allow her to continue helping people.
“That’s what I get up to do every day; that’s why I’ve done this work for 20 years,” she said. “It’s about the women and children and victims of domestic violence.”
‘The face of Harbor’
Harbor started out 30 years ago with $500 and a phone line in a closet at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. As Christensen leaves, the organization prepares to break ground on a new shelter following a successful $1.6 million capital campaign and a land donation from Durwood Stephenson.
The new shelter will have 32 beds and give each family its own room. It will even have a shelter for pets. At its current location, Harbor has three rooms and beds for 14 women and children.
Harbor will break ground this summer and open the new shelter next year. Those milestones would not have been possible without Christensen’s work, said Suefan Johnson, chairwoman of the Harbor board.
“We are sad that she will not be here with us when we get to that point, but she got us here, and we’re incredibly grateful,” Johnson said.
Board vice chairwoman Kelly Norman said Christensen has helped Johnston to acknowledge, discuss and address the once-taboo issue of domestic violence.
“She’s been the face of Harbor, campaigning, fundraising and putting a face to the stigma,” she said. “Where 20 years ago people weren’t speaking about it, she has created awareness that domestic violence affects all social classes.”
Having one leader for so many years is rare for an agency like Harbor, said Robin Colbert, associate director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Christensen’s extended tenure speaks highly of both her and Harbor, Colbert said.
“It’s very stressful work, so there’s always a lot of turnover,” she said. “You’re providing direct services for folks who are in need, so you can imagine some of the issues involved in that.”
Christensen took the job at Harbor when her son, Chris, was 7 years old. As far back as he can remember, Chris said, his mother has always looked for ways to help people in times of need.
“She’s the first one to lend a helping hand,” he said. “For instance, there was a time growing up I remember she let somebody who was down and out stay with us for a couple of weeks.”
Smithfield attorney Cindy Huntsberry said she could not believe it when she learned of Christensen’s departure from Harbor. “She really has built it up from nothing, so she’ll be missed,” she said.
For more information on Harbor, visit HarborShelter.org or call 919-938-3566. To reach Harbor’s 24-hour crisis help line, call 919-631-5478.