Theresa Harrison grew up in a Mennonite family in Sarasota. Education was stressed, though college attendance was rare in her extended family. In contrast, Theresa had earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UF by the time she was 22.
“I was an overachiever,” she says, smiling.
One takeaway from the Mennonite culture was its emphasis on community needs. Theresa has devoted her entire professional life to service and advocacy. She is currently the executive director of Peaceful Paths Domestic Abuse Network — a job she took on at the tender age of 29.
Writes her friend, Dee Dee Smith: “Dr. Theresa Harrison has made a seismic impact on North Central Florida through her positive energy, persuasiveness, and her fidelity to the mission of disenfranchised women and children. Her ever present smile is always a shining light for our community.”
Theresa’s first passion was education, and she served as the educational coordinator for the Eckerd Youth Alternative program, Camp E-KEL-ETU, a residential wilderness program for at-risk boys in the Ocala National Forest. She stayed for seven years.
“As I did that work I realized that it wasn’t enough to just teach,” she recalls, so she was also earning her doctorate at UF in Educational Leadership, Policy and Foundations. She completed her Ph.D. in 2000 at about the same time she was hired at Peaceful Paths.
“It all meshes together. Advocacy is advocacy,” she says. “You’re fighting for people whose voices somehow get diminished. I call it my ‘righteous anger.’ You do this work to make an impact.”
Her leadership on the Eighth Judicial Circuit Domestic Violence Task Force has brought new awareness among professionals about the dynamics of domestic violence, which affects a third of all women at some point in their lives.
Theresa turned the devastating fire that destroyed Peaceful Path’s administrative offices in February 2009 into an opportunity to fund a better office space, using her leadership and coordination skills, and her fundraising talents. The community responded to her clear message of what the agency needed.
Theresa is also president this year of the Gainesville Junior Woman’s Club, a group she joined in 1994 and the source of some of her most enduring friendships.
Theresa and her husband Jim Harrison, director of creative services for University Relations at UF, fell in love when they were students at UF. “We knew each other for nine days when we decided to get married, and then we were engaged for a year.” They have been married nearly 18 years, and are the parents of 5-year-old Nate.
When she’s not working, Theresa loves to read, and enjoys cooking and entertaining, shopping, knitting, and going on cruises and “city culture” vacations. She loves the beach and summers in Florida, the hotter the better.