The leader of a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of residents living in a marginalized, impoverished York County neighborhood has resigned.
Karen McKernan resigned last month as executive director of A Place for Hope, whose mission includes empowering the residents of the Blackmon Road community, located in the county at the southeastern edge of Rock Hill, and providing them with basic necessities.
The board of directors will begin its search for a new director after the first of the year, said board president Chris Johnson, a project designer for a Charlotte-based architecture firm.
Meanwhile, "it's business as usual," Johnson said, commending the nonprofit's three staff members and board members for doing whatever is needed to see A Place for Hope through the transition.
"We're sad to see (McKernan) go, but there's a lot of different things that she got started that I'm really excited about," he said.
The nonprofit was founded in 2001 to help the residents living in the Blackmon Road area, near Albright Road.
Many families had been living there without electricity, water or septic systems, some for decades. Right before McKernan was hired as its first full-time director, grants helped extend water and sewer lines to the edge of the community.
Among her accomplishments, McKernan worked with county agencies to create a Blackmon Road community master plan aimed at providing better opportunities for housing and economic development for the neighborhood and its residents.
In July the center opened a wash house with coin-operated washers, dryers and showers for residents. Paid for by grants, the wash house also provides employment opportunities for residents.
McKernan was a successful grant writer, board members say. On her watch, the organization received several local, state, and federal grants that have led to successful programming for children and adults in the Blackmon Road community.
One of these grants is funding a new program which gives adults leadership positions, "so they can be advocating on their own behalf," said board member Jennifer Disney, former board president of five years and Winthrop University political science professor. It is one of just four similar programs in the state.
Ready for a change
"As a board member, I felt it came suddenly," Disney said, referring to McKernan's resignation.
"But nonprofit work is very difficult, and there's high turnover. Our community is one of the more challenging," she said.
McKernan, who began as executive director in 2007, said she feels she's helped bring A Place for Hope and the Blackmon Road community "to the precipice of change." The next step will require "a lot of resident input and more resident involvement," she said.
The hardest part of leading the organization is "getting people together," McKernan said, including the donors, staff, board members and residents of Blackmon Road.
"I believe the community is better off now than when I came. The kids have made great strides, and adults are beginning to communicate and look at new opportunities," she said.
McKernan first informed the board of her resignation in mid-November. She's currently employed at a new job outside the nonprofit sector and is focusing on "family and developing new skills," she said.
Leaving the job, which often took up between 45 to 60 hours a week, "has been very emotional," she said.
"Anybody in nonprofit would know I put my heart and soul in that community," she said.
"It doesn't turn off. You're always a strong advocate for that organization. It's not a nine-to-five job, and you enjoy doing it, and I did enjoy doing it."
But now is "a perfect opportunity for new blood" and "new energy," she said. Residents might also respond more energetically to new leadership, she said.
"It would be selfish to think I could accomplish everything. Sometimes stepping back is a way you can help other entities step forward."