Family Life director to step down Center's chief will focus on national organization

November 01, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,SUN STAFF

Jane Walker will step down as executive director of Columbia's Family Life Center later this month after helping make it a lifeline for those in Howard County who need counseling -- as well as a resource for immigrants, young people and the unemployed.

After eight years as director and eight years before that as community services coordinator, she intends to spend more time with the national organization she founded and heads, the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health, based in Alexandria, Va.

Ms. Walker plans to leave the Family Life Center once its board of directors hires a replacement.

"She's a peacemaker and a strong and gentle person who brings people together to find common ground," said Chaya Kaplan, who coordinates a parental education program at the center. "She's been a major contributor to the human services community. She surely will be missed."

The Family Life Center, located at Wilde Lake Village Green, was launched by a group of mental health professionals in 1972 to offer affordable counseling services. It saw nearly 700 clients in the last year, not including programs aimed at black youths, Hispanic immigrants and other groups.

The operation started as an in dex-card referral service and now has 12 employees, 25 contractual therapists and psychologists, and a $500,000 annual budget. It charges fees based on a family or individual's ability to pay.

During her tenure, Ms. Walker led the private, nonprofit organization's effort to address such issues as AIDS, unemployment and depression through support groups and educational programs led by therapists. And she did so at a time when government and corporate contributions for such services were drying up.

The monetary rewards were not great, she said, though she declined to give the salary. But when she hears from someone the center has helped -- an unemployed worker who has found a job, for example -- "it's the biggest reward you could get," she said.

"For me, the nonprofit wages were completely offset by the value of what we're able to do in the community and the way in which we touch people's lives," said the 50-year-old Dorsey's Search village resident. "I have to feel it. If it's not in my heart or gut, it would be impossible to go out and raise money and ask people to contribute to the organization."

Even as Ms. Walker prepares to leave, she's promoting one of the center's major fund-raisers, a Nov. 18 "Sports Night Out" in which middle school students solicit pledges for an all-night sports marathon at the Supreme Sports Club.

Therapists who run support and counseling groups at the center praised Ms. Walker's ability to build support for those programs until they could be spun off on their own.

Such initiatives include the now-independent Children of Separation and Divorce Project, and FIRN, an information network for immigrants.

Paula LaSalle, a nurse psychotherapist who runs the center's support groups for people with HIV and acquired immune deficiency syndrome and their families, said Ms. Walker has been a "terrific advocate" and helped the programs obtain financing.

"She's very personally involved," said Ms. LaSalle. "Initially, having a group for HIV and AIDS was a scary and different thing to do. She really went to bat for the group."

Ms. Walker said the main lesson she learned in 16 years at the center is "basically the goodness of people."

"Often people say, 'How can you work in an organization like that and deal with all the people who come through the door with problems?' " she said. "That would be the case until you see that people can make changes, that they can and want to improve family relationships, and how many people stand ready to help other people. That's what keeps you going."

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