Breathing room

By Elizabeth Cernota Clark

Sometimes, you just need a break. And if you don’t realize it, or can’t afford to take it, someone needs to give it to you.

After 22 years of directing Life Line Outreach in Henderson, N.C., Dorothy Hunt got a four-month sabbatical.

Funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C., she headed for the hills to write a book, tend to her spiritual life, and revel in the serenity of the Tennessee mountains.

During her break, Hunt celebrated her 79th birthday, fished and swam, and traveled to Florida to spend Mother’s Day with her son for the first time in many years.

Catherine Ann Ahrendsen, founding director of A Helping Hand in Chapel Hill, N.C., has led the cause of serving senior citizens for 11 years, with only brief respites.

And like Hunt, she is one of five recipients of the Z. Smith Reynolds 2006 sabbatical awards.

Now in its 17th year, the program allows nonprofit leaders to take extended breaks from their jobs “to relax, revitalize, and gain new energy,” the foundation says.

Hunt’s desire was to spend time with family and friends, she says.

With her home on the same property as Life Line’s shelter for women and children in crisis, she sometimes shares her own house if the shelter is full.

“I love the people and I love to do what I do,” says Hunt.  “But I was very tired physically and I needed time to think about myself, my future, my family, and actually see if [Life Line staff] could go ahead and do what they were supposed to do when I was gone.”

Her daughter served as director in her absence, and when they saw each other during her four months off, they carefully avoided shop talk.

While extended time off can provide much-needed opportunities for nonprofit leaders, it also can create opportunities for the organizations they temporarily leave behind.

In Ahrendsen’s case, that meant deepening her group’s leadership reserves.

“I think sometimes that this baby grew much bigger than I ever would have imagined,” she says of A Helping Hand.  “Having other people involved in caring for it will be very good for the organization.”

Before leaving, she realized she needed to write down office procedures and names of contacts.

“When I was the only one doing the grant writing, it was okay to just keep [the details] in my head, but I needed to write it all down for the person taking my place,” says Ahrendsen.

To prepare, she divided her job into operations and development, she says, creating a “job-share” situation for those taking over her responsibilities.

A nurse who had worked with A Helping Hand is filling in as executive director, and a new employee is in charge of marketing and development.

Ahrendsen says she doesn’t want the way she has always worked to determine how the newest staffer works.

Instead, the new staffer should improve the system, thus making Ahrendsen’s job easier when she returns and strengthening the organization.

She launched her three-month sabbatical by taking her husband and four of their sons on a seven-day Caribbean cruise, and is now working on house projects, visiting friends, learning digital photography, and spending time with family.

She’s also reflecting on her own life and A Helping Hand.

“I still feel like it’s some fantasy,” she says. “It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve worked six or seven days a week the past 11 years, living and breathing this organization. And it’s unusual to step away from it. But it’s good for me and healthy for the organization.”

Hunt concurs.

“It was just what I needed: family time, rest time, thinking time,” she says.

Because of their sabbaticals, Ahrendsen and Hunt say they will be able to look at their life’s work with new eyes and new energy.

And equally important, they say, in their absences, energetic new people have entered the realm of nonprofit leadership.

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