Leslie Vassilaros looks back on her time at Harmony House

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Leslie Vassilaros is stepping down as executive director of Harmony House, having participated in founding the advocacy center and helming the effort to help abused children on both sides of the Ohio River for 14 years.

Vassilaros noted she has roots in the local area.

“I was raised in the Ohio Valley. I grew up in Maynard, Ohio,” she said, adding that after being let go from her job at R&F Coal Co. in 1989 she completed a bachelor or business degree and was offered a position at the Upper Ohio Valley Sexual Assault Help Center in Wheeling. She was soon promoted to executive director, but she saw there were further needs in the area that could be addressed.

“I felt like, not only could I do executive director work with administration, but I really felt like I had a connection to the people that were victims,” she said.

After 10 years she moved to Pittsburgh and worked at nonprofit organizations. In 2003 she was offered a position in Wheeling focusing on children’s advocacy working under a Benedum Foundation grant to start a children’s advocacy center for Ohio County. The work eventually branched into Marshall and Belmont counties. In 2011, an advocacy location was opened in St. Clairsville.

“I was tasked to put this children’s advocacy center together, and I had a budget of around $40,000-$45,000. I was the only employee. Then 14 years later we had gone from a budget of $45,000 to a budget of over $500,000, we went from one employee to seven full-time employees, we went from one center to two centers,” she said. “We’ve gone from helping abused children and expanded it to helping adults with developmental disabilities that might be victims.”

Vassilaros added that in 2003 she was trained to be a forensic interviewer, advocate and to take on the other duties necessary for the center.

“I wrote grants and the community responded with donations. I was able to increase the staffing,” she said, noting there is a child and family advocate and a forensic interviewer on each side of the river. The staff also includes a children’s advocacy center manager and a therapist.

“We’re seeing more and more kids every year,” she said. “The first year, when I was by myself, I think it was 47 kids, and this year we’ll see over 1,000 children. It’s sad. You think the need would go away, but it’s not going away. It keeps increasing.”

Vassilaros said the number of victims continues to grow each year.

“We’re seeing children that are not only dealing with sexual abuse, we’re seeing children that are dealing with physical abuse, we’re seeing children that are drug endangered. We’re seeing children that are victims of domestic violence within their families. We’re seeing children that are witnesses to crimes,” she said, noting cases where children have witnessed murders and other shocking criminal acts.

“It’s very sad, but I’m very grateful that our communities on both sides of the river, the Ohio side and the West Virginia side, have embraced the importance of what we do here for each and every child that comes through our doors.”

Other organizations such as The Brothers of the Wheel motorcycle group, the Christian Fellowship Foundation, XTO Energy, Stingray and numerous individuals have donated to Harmony House.

“It’s not only money, it’s that emotional support. It’s letting us know that what we do is valued. They also donate in-kind things. We get our spaces on both sides of the river for free,” she said, thanking Ohio Valley Medical Center and the Belmont County Board of Developmental Disabilities, as well as clubs that drop off items such as gloves, hats, toys and snacks for the children.

“It’s just been a wonderful community effort to bring this all together. I can’t tell you how honored I am to do this for 14 years,” she said, adding that the internet has opened a wide range of hazards.

“We have sexting now, we have internet crime, we have human trafficking. We see the nature of what we saw change over those years,” she said. “A big factor in all of those changes is social media has changed how people can access pornography, how they can communicate and get younger victims, thinking they’re talking to a kid when they’re talking to an adult, they can meet up, sexting with your friends. Technology in those 14 years has changed so much that we’re even seeing different types of sexual exploitation of children.”

She noted that this has meant training staff to recognize these methods and the issues related to them.

“Human trafficking can also be a parent trading their child for a drug fix. We had to educate ourselves to recognize what those things were so we could identify them when the child was telling his or her story,” she said.

Vassilaros also stressed the importance of continuing to build and strengthen bonds with other agencies in the area.

“We work with multi-disciplinary teams. We work with law enforcement, prosecution, Job and Family Services on this side of the river,” she said of Ohio. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful team effort on both sides of the river.”

Vassilaros added that she was grateful for the opportunity to respond to this need and to help build an advocacy center to help those victims.

“It’s a wonderful journey. I feel very blessed to be on this journey,” she said.

Vassilaros added that her plans on retiring include expanding her education and continuing to assist in volunteer organizations.

Debra Hawkins has been selected to serve as the next executive director. She has been operating Harmony House with Vassilaros in a coaching role, preparing for next year.

“Everyone feels that they’re in good hands with Debra,” Vassilaros said.

Hawkins brings 16 years of experience with Franklin County Children’s Services and 23 years in child welfare in total.

“I’ve been back to the valley since 2013. I grew up here. I was raised here, and my family is still here,” she said, adding that she was impressed with the dedication of staff and the cooperative arrangements Harmony House has made that facilitates the interviewing of child victims.

“I think what Harmony House does here is amazing,” she said. “I am humbled to have been chosen to take over for Leslie upon her retirement. She’s done amazing things. I have big shoes to fill.”

Hawkins added that she brings experience that will assist in maintaining the partnerships and funding sources that have been built up at Harmony House, as well as growing those services.

“This Ohio Valley is resource-rich when it comes to children, and they are a very giving community,” she noted.

Belmont County Commissioner Ginny Favede, who assisted in the founding of Harmony House, called the advocacy center near and dear to her heart. She expressed admiration for Vassilaros, noting that she suited the role of executive director perfectly and was exceptional in meeting the needs of the area’s children.

“Leslie showed up one night … for an interview and left all of us emotionally speechless. It’s safe to say the rest was history,” she said, adding credit to former West Virginia first lady Sandra Casber Wise for obtaining early funding and OVMC for providing housing.

“Leslie has taken this children’s advocacy center to places that none of us had ever dreamt or hoped. She has been a true advocate for children,” Favede said. “Leslie has been a true champion.”

The Times Leader

December 11, 2016