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After 12 years as Rape Response's executive director, Jeanne Buffington is passing the torch
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After serving 12 years as executive director of Rape Response, Jeanne Buffington is retiring, though she isn't leaving the organization entirely. She will stay on as a contractor for fundraising and grant writing. - photo by Scott Rogers

Ruminating over dinner last winter, Jeanne Buffington came to a realization. 

After 12 years at the helm of Rape Response, a nonprofit serving survivors of sexual assault in Hall, Forsyth, Dawson, Habersham, Lumpkin and White counties, she felt it might be time to leave the top spot.

“I want to be here and support Rape Response in ways where I might have unique skills or talents or abilities, but I don’t need to be the executive director anymore,” Buffington said.

Buffington will turn over the reins Oct. 1 to Jen Tarnowski, the advocacy director who they both knew at some point would become Rape Response’s executive director.

Buffington is not leaving the nonprofit entirely, however; she is staying on as a contractor for 32 hours a week doing fundraising and grant writing.

In an interview with The Times, Buffington said she is leaving the nonprofit in great hands with Tarnowski, who started the campus advocacy program at colleges across Rape Response’s service area.

“She knows the advocacy ropes, whereas I know the fundraising and the money part and the grant writing part,” Buffington said.

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Jen Tarnowski is currently the advocacy director of Rape Response in Gainesville. She will be taking over as executive director Oct. 1 when Jeanne Buffington retires. - photo by Scott Rogers
‘An advocate at heart’

Tarnowski told The Times she is excited for the new opportunity. Though she could not share many details as they’re still in development, she said she wants to create more partnerships with the community.

“We’re also working in conjunction with some of our community partners to see if there are gaps in services and how can we meet those needs,” Tarnowski said.

Tarnowski started as a contract educator for the agency in 2017, as she was looking for something part-time while moving her family from Gwinnett County.

“The education program sucked me in. I just felt like this is where I need to be, and I think I need to be here — I liked to be here — more than just contractually,” Tarnowski said.

Tarnowski recalled sending a quick message to Buffington asking to keep her in mind if anything full-time arose. 

Immediately, Buffington called. A few days later, Rape Response was awarded a grant that allowed Buffington to hire Tarnowski as a campus advocate.

“She has truly done everything you can do in this agency,” Buffington said. “I feel like she has the passion and the excitement, and she has strong relationships in our communities. I feel like she is set for success in those areas, and I look forward to seeing how the agency grows with her leadership.”

“I’m an advocate at heart,” Tarnowski said. “That is really my passion.”

By comparison, Buffington had never worked in services for sexual assault survivors before her arrival in 2010, though she worked in nonprofits most of her life, starting out as a volunteer and progressing from there. Her past stints include the NGHS Foundation, Eagle Ranch and Young Life.

Wendy Glasbrenner was part of a committee credited with creating Rape Response in 1988.

Glasbrenner said the demands of being an executive director of an agency like Rape Response requires business acumen and the passion for social work.

“(Buffington) just had the best heart for the job as far as relating to victims and their circumstances and inspiring staff to respond to survivors in the way we originally envisioned,” she said.

When Buffington started, the agency served 228 people. In the first 11 months of this fiscal year, Rape Response has helped 860 people.

Buffington took over as the country was coming out of the Great Recession, meaning money was tight.

"When Jeanne went in to work with Rape Response, it was at a time where everything crashed everywhere,” said Rape Response Board President Melissa King. “Had it not been for her, I don't know that it would be as successful as it is now."

The budget for Rape Response was $182,213 in 2010-2011. This year, it was $782,276.

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After serving 12 years as executive director of Rape Response, Jeanne Buffington is retiring, though she isn't leaving the organization entirely. She will stay on as a contractor for fundraising and grant writing. - photo by Scott Rogers

Describing Buffington as tireless in her work ethic, King said the outgoing executive director "never shied away from getting grants" no matter how small.

Buffington said one of the major accomplishments over her tenure was getting copyright protection for the agency’s “Let’s Talk” series, an educational program for teaching healthy relationships from sixth through ninth grade.

In 2010, more than 3,000 students participated in the “Let’s Talk” classes when there was only an eighth grade program. In 2021, that number across all grades jumped to more than 12,500 students in total.

The copyright isn’t for financial gain but to protect the integrity of how the information is taught. Buffington said there is depth to the presentation beyond the instructional materials, and Rape Response has the knowledge on how to best present them.

“We don’t really want anyone to be able to take our PowerPoint presentation and present it without us being a part of that,” Buffington said.

Expanding staff

When Buffington started at Rape Response, there were only two full-time employees, two part-time employees and a contract educator.

Rape Response is currently in the process of hiring three people, which would put them at 11 full-time employees and at least 15 contractors beside a team of volunteers and interns.

One of these positions is for a dedicated Hall County advocate, as roughly half of their services are for people in Hall County.

Tarnowski said this person would likely be the first contact for community partners to reach out to.

“The hope is that person can get very plugged into Hall County and be able to build some of the relationships with some of the other agencies maybe we haven’t been able to touch yet,” she said.

Gainesville Police Deputy Chief Kevin Gaddis, who has served on the Rape Response board, said the agency plays an instrumental role in supporting survivors of sexual assault while collaborating with law enforcement.

"They do a really good job of helping the survivors through the whole process from the reporting, all of the forensics that has to take place in these cases and even through court cases where it maybe makes it to a trial or whatnot,” Gaddis said. “They are really good at being hands-on."

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Jen Tarnowski is currently the advocacy director of Rape Response in Gainesville. She will be taking over as executive director Oct. 1 when Jeanne Buffington retires. - photo by Scott Rogers

Tarnowski has an adult daughter and son, and her husband is Jeff Tarnowski, the University of North Georgia’s vice president for university advancement.

When away from Rape Response, Tarnowski said she enjoys working in the garden and baking, and is a self-described “holiday fanatic.”

“At Christmastime, it looks like Christmas threw up at my house, and the same thing for Halloween,” Tarnowski said.

With her newfound free time, Buffington said she hopes to spend more time with loved ones and traveling. Her travel itinerary for the next year includes the Galapagos Islands, Normandy and Israel.

Buffington also loves to bake, as she used to make homemade cookies for people’s birthdays in the office.

Feeling “scattered for a number of years,” the step back will allow her to be more present in her relationships, Buffington said.

“I feel like I’ve maintained my family and my friends and those relationships, but I haven’t been invested there to the depth that I want to,” she said.