In many ways, Attorney Katy Conklin's life has come full circle. Born and raised in Rogers City, she spent nearly three decades in Lansing determinedly advocating for social justice and change.
Despite her many years working there as a practicing attorney and as an advocate for victims of sexual and domestic violence, Conklin didn't forget her roots and hoped to one day return to Northeast Michigan. Two months ago, she was able to do just that when Shelter, Inc. welcomed her as its new executive director, replacing recently retired Executive Director Sandra Lewis.
"I heard about the position through a friend and colleague of mine," said Conklin of the local agency that has served victims of domestic and sexual violence since 1978. "She called me in early February just before the job posting ended and thought it would be perfect for me."
Conklin agreed with her friend, and since securing the position, has been busy getting the pulse of the community and working to enhance and further develop the services Shelter, Inc. offers. She came to the agency at an opportune time since Shelter, Inc. received a significant $400,000 grant in 2013 to develop initiatives and best practices to help victims of sexual assault in the five-county service area of Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency, Presque Isle and Iosco.
The two-year grant was one of only six awarded in the nation. The initiatives/practices developed for rural communities by Shelter, Inc. and the other five participating agencies ultimately will be used as a blueprint for the rest of the country, Conklin said. Success of the grant program could also lead to additional grant awards down the road.
"Once we can demonstrate that we have done it are giving great services to a rural community it will open the door for more funding to sustain the program," she said.
The agency also is looking to create a new name for itself other than Shelter, Inc., which Conklin said doesn't really signify all the services offered to victims of both domestic and sexual violence, nor does it seem to be readily recognizable to many area residents.
"We're trying to figure out the best way of re-branding," Conklin said. "The current name doesn't necessarily reflect all the things we do such as help with job searches and resumes, help with housing, help with finding resources for community services and help women complete school."
The resources available through the $400,000 Sexual Assault Demonstration Initiative (SADI) grant will help with the re-branding process.
In the meantime, as the new executive director, Conklin is drawing upon her many years of commitment to ending domestic and sexual violence. Though she doesn't dwell on it, she said both she and her now deceased mom were survivors of domestic violence at a time when help was sometimes difficult to find.
Besides personal experience, she's seen a lot during her professional career. She started off as an advocate in a local shelter in Lansing where she fielded crisis hotline calls and provided other hands-on services through an internship at Michigan State University. She was pursuing a bachelor's degree from MSU at the time of her internship.
"I saw so many legal injustices that drew me to want to go to law school," Conklin said. "At first I thought maybe I'd just get my MSW, but I had a great mentor. She said I was a mighty strong woman, and that I should just go straight to law school. That's what I did."
Conklin, who also attended Alpena Community College prior to obtaining her bachelor's degree, is a graduate of Thomas M. Cooley Law School and has been licensed to practice law in the state of Michigan since 1996. She was the supervising attorney of the Domestic Violence Unit of Legal Services of South Central Michigan, where she and her staff represented survivors of domestic violence.
She served as the staff attorney for the Civil Justice Project for the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence. She is known both statewide and nationally as a legal educator and speaker, legal trainer for professionals working with survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
Fortunate now to be back in the place of her youth, Conklin intends to continue championing the cause of those who have come through extremely tough situations and who need extra help and support to break free of the cycle of violence.
"There are 800 to 900 lives impacted every year through Shelter, Inc. services," Conklin said. "There are a lot more out there that we haven't hit yet. The numbers are going to increase with the capacity of this SADI grant."