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Alumna helps shape Alabama after founding state’s first women’s shelter in 1979

Wherever there has been a need in her community, alumna Kathryn Calogrides Coumanis (MSW ’70) has stepped in to help fill it.

Last September, Coumanis was honored by as One of the 34 Women Who Shape the State of Alabama as she founded Penelope House in 1979, which was the fifth shelter for battered women in the United States.

“I was very humbled by it,” she said. “I appreciate the recognition, but I was just doing my job.”

Coumanis has worked in child protective services all her life and started her social work career with the State of Alabama Department of Human Resources as a state office administrator in child protective services.

But the idea for Penelope House began when she heard a radio report about shelters in England. At the time, there were no shelters in Alabama, so Coumanis talked her Greek women’s group – the Daughters of Penelope – into starting Alabama’s first women’s shelter.

“We had $26 in our budget,” she said. “We found a house for it. There was a shelter in Jacksonville, Fla., so that was the closest one to us at the time. We went to visit them, and they gave us their manual and showed us their operation. We came back, and I rewrote the manual. We set up some policies, and that’s when it began.”

On March 19, 1979, the shelter opened with an uncertain future.

“It took a lot of nerve,” she said. “I had several people tell me that I was committing professional suicide, and I thought ‘Well, I guess I could go back to teaching first grade.’”

But the shelter received support from the faith-based community and local government as the Mayor of Mobile provided a grant writer – who still works with the group today – to help write grants, which back then consisted of two pages of narrative and one page of budget.

Now, Penelope House has a nearly $2 million annual budget and more than 40 staff members.

“I wanted it to be a professional agency and not just a bunch of volunteers,” she said. “I felt like the complexity of problems that these women were facing required that they needed to be dealing with professionally trained social workers. We wanted to give them the best we had to offer.”

Despite the long hours, Coumanis, who served as the group’s Executive Director twice and still works there today, said she’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“As soon as I realized there was a need, I had to respond to it,” she said. “I couldn’t walk away from it. The social work needs of domestic violence victims are very complex. They are not like other clients. We help women from all parts of the community, and 60 percent of the population in this field are children.”

Now, Penelope House has expanded its services to include a child therapist, outreach programs, prevention education, community education and training for law enforcement. Coumanis’ daughter has served as executive director since 2008 after working in medical social work for nearly 20 years.

“There is nothing better than watching social workers do what they were trained to do without so many restrictions,” she said, adding that since Penelope House was the first of its kind in the state that it was able to work with the legislature to help set state guidelines that were fair and effective for its clients.

Even with all the effort it took to found and grow Penelope House, Coumanis had other responsibilities as well. She worked with the State Department of Human Resources for years and has been an adjunct professor in sociology at Spring Hill College since 1981 teaching both Intro to Social Welfare and Intro to Social Gerontology.

So how did she make time for everything?

“I never thought about that because I just knew what I had to do, and I did it,” she said. “There is nothing more exciting than having the opportunity and the privilege to start an agency from scratch and see it grow. It is the biggest privilege of my life, and it didn’t start out that way. All I wanted to do was to get something going and turn it over to one of the other agencies.”

She also wrote a book in 2010 called “You Can’t Beat an Alabama Woman,” which chronicles the creation of Penelope House.

Coumanis credits her Tulane education for helping her achieve her goals.

“It was the best school available, and I think I made the best choice,” she said. “Once I got there, I knew I made the right decision. It is a wonderful school, and they encouraged you to think outside the box. It was a great experience for me. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Coumanis, who has been married to husband Nick for 55 years, has two children and four grandchildren along with a dog and a step-dog.

Published November 18, 2016. Written by Joseph Halm, Tulane PR.