After 10 years working with victims of abuse, Stephanie K. Sites' occupation had taken its toll.
"I needed a break," she said last week, sitting in her new office on Gordon Street in Bel Air. "I had been doing the work for 10 years and was trying to figure out what I was going to be when I grew up."
So in December, she left her job as executive director of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County to take stock. Eventually, despite the toll taken by a decade in the field, she found that she missed the work.
Last month, the board of directors of Harford County's Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center Inc. chose Ms. Sites to replace Madeleine Grant, who resigned in April and left the organization June 30.
"She brings energy -- a vision to the agency," said Patricia Aaserude, president of the center's board of directors. Those strengths will be needed as the center works to establish the county's first crisis shelter for abused women and their children.
"This is going to be a very big job," Ms. Aaserude said. "We're moving from a grass-roots group to a much bigger category of nonprofit." The group's operating budget is $315,736 for fiscal 1996, compared with $279,000 for fiscal 1995.
Established in 1978, the resource center provides a 24-hour help line, crisis counseling, a victims' companion program, legal advocacy and community education programs. Though the center does not have its own shelter yet, caseworkers can help abuse victims, mostly women and their children, find emergency shelter.
Ms. Grant's resignation after 18 months as the center's executive director was a surprise, Ms. Aaserude said.
Ms. Grant said she left the organization for personal reasons. "I wish SARC well, and I think it's a very, very valuable organization," she said.
Starting in September, the Bel Air resident will move to New Hampshire for a year to serve as a fund-raiser in VISTA, the Volunteers in Service to America program, a kind of domestic Peace Corps. Ms. Grant has lived in Bel Air since 1965.
Ms. Sites, a resident of Riverdale in Prince George's County, said her main goals in Harford are to open the shelter and to raise money for the resource center.
While she was acting executive director and then executive director in Howard County from July 1992 through December, the number of shelters the center ran grew from two to six, and the center's budget grew from $300,000 to more than $800,000.
She came to the Howard center as director of residential services in 1989 after working in homes for abused adolescent girls in Maryland for five years.
"I decided I did not want to work with kids anymore -- very draining," she said. "I have kids that I still carry around in my head with me."
She graduated from Western Maryland College in Westminster
TC with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology in 1984 and has taught domestic violence classes and served as a consultant at the University of Pennsylvania.
Her salary falls within the $40,000-to-$45,000-year range, funded county, state and United Way grants and donations, Ms. Sites said.
Coming from Howard's program, with its numerous shelters and larger budget, Ms. Sites, 32, views Harford as a challenge.
"That was the real exciting part about all the opportunity here -- opening a shelter from scratch," she said.
The opening of the county's first crisis shelter, originally planned for this fall, has been delayed until May, according to Ms. Aaserude.
Plans for renovating a building in central Bel Air were put on hold for several months while the board of directors considered buying another building that would not need renovation, she said.
But the board decided to stay with the plan to renovate a county-donated building. "We just made it a smaller project for the time being," Ms. Aaserude said. "Instead of opening nine bedrooms, we're opening four." Each room could house a parent and two children for six to eight weeks.
The renovation is being funded by a $600,000 state bond.
A campaign to raise $500,000 for shelter operations and staff was also postponed while the board considered the other location. The campaign so far has raised $50,000. Three fund-raisers are planned for September, Ms. Aaserude said, and the center also has applied for a $250,000 federal grant.
After working with victims of abuse for 10 years, Ms. Sites said her basic message to victims has not changed much.
"I still think the most powerful thing you can tell someone is: 'It's not your fault. You're not alone, and we believe in you.' "
The crisis center's 24-hour help line numbers are (410) 836-8430 and (410) 879-3486.