Portrait Gwen Zorn, CEO Timeout

Gwen Zorn, new CEO of the Time Out Shelter.

All the paths Gwen Zorn has trod, from the tragic to triumphant, prepared her to fill the role of CEO at the Time Out Shelter in Payson.

Zorn took over the reins almost two months ago, after a chance meeting in the parking lot of Safeway with the former Time Out CEO, Edna Welsheimer.

But that’s kind of how Zorn’s life has gone, odd twists that end up making perfect sense. At Time Out, her life experiences have woven a beautiful tapestry of compassion, business sense and leadership. She has turned her own history of child sexual trauma and subsequent violent relationships into a deep understanding of the needs of the more than 100 domestic violence victims Time Out shelters every year.

“We met during the first COVID-19 closure,” said Zorn, as she and Welsheimer said hi to a mutual friend in the Safeway parking lot.

Zorn and Welsheimer hit it off immediately. “Edna talked to me for 90 minutes to two hours,” said Zorn. “It was a mini-interview — she was vetting me for the position.”

Welsheimer had decided months earlier she would retire in early July after seven years at the helm.

“Truthfully, I prayed the night before meeting Gwen — for someone who would step in and love Time Out as much as I do,” she said.

She wanted to find someone who had the business sense to keep the doors open, the integrity to keep in compliance with funders, but also the compassion and nurturing to make the staff and clients feel safe, supported and protected.

“Her answers were amazing,” said Welsheimer.

The shelter has faced big challenges in recent months, with a decline in donations, a drop off in business at the thrift store due to closures and a likely rise in domestic violence due to the stress and isolation caused by the pandemic.

In that parking lot interview, Welsheimer learned Zorn had experienced much of what victims, both children and adults, suffer from abuse. Both women know if you haven’t experienced the pain, it is difficult to walk someone through to the other side. The staff at the Time Out Shelter take in broken families at their most vulnerable and despairing moment, then help them rebuild healthy relationships and new hope for the future.

And that’s something Zorn understands intimately.

Journey to recovery

Zorn’s journey through trauma and resilience started at the tender age of 7, when a powerful man in her small North Dakota farming town began molesting her. The county commissioner sexually molested her frequently for the next five years, repeatedly threatening to harm each one of her family members if she ever said a word.

“He took me into his office and showed me photos of my home and the homes of my grandparents and aunts and uncles,” she said.

He told Zorn if she breathed a word of what happened between them, he would first take her grandparents’ home, then her aunts and uncles’ homes until only her parents’ home remained — and then he would take that.

“I went into a massive depressed state,” she said. “I believed him because I was a little girl ... I carried the weight of the entire extended family.”

After the man went into a nursing home when Zorn turned 12, the abuse stopped. She started therapy and drugs, but never told anyone about what actually happened.

“They prescribed Xanax. I believe I was addicted,” she said.

By the time she turned 14, she “weaned off” the drug, but turned to promiscuity instead.

At 19, Zorn was married and had a baby.

That’s when the man finally died of natural causes in the nursing home.

Finally, she could tell her parents about the abuse.

“I’ve never seen my dad cry so hard, because my dad was that man’s son’s best friend,” she said.

Telling her parents didn’t end the trauma, it started Zorn’s recovery journey. She sought peace through therapists, marriages, programs and retreats. Along the way, she experienced domestic violence in her relationships.

“I’ve spent thousands of dollars,” she said of her path to survival, but as one of her healers said, only the healthy seek help.

“It is truly in your own way and your own time,” she said, “There is no right or wrong and allowing yourself to just be and finding those support people is tremendously important.”

That insight made her the perfect fit for Time Out, where she strives to meet each client “where they are at.”

In explaining her strong support for Zorn as her successor, Welsheimer said that ability to listen and accept the legitimacy of each client’s path cannot be taught.

“If I had a mirror of when I started this journey, her compassion, empathy, smile and sense of community collaboration in meeting needs would be how she reminds me of myself,” said Welsheimer.

Hit the ground running

Already Zorn has rolled up her sleeves and dug into meeting the staff and understanding the processes from the first phone call to launching a client into transitional housing.

“Resiliency is key,” she said of the job.

She makes sure to meet each new resident immediately and ask how he or she is doing.

“Some of them say, ‘OK.’ Some of them start to open up and share,” she said.

The key to the healing process “is to listen and hear what they are saying,” said Zorn.

For Zorn, listening starts when a victim picks up the phone to call the Time Out hotline.

“In Gila County, we are the only sexual and domestic violence hotline,” said Zorn.

Trained advocates take these calls.

They go through 40 hours of training before they can answer that first call, said Zorn.

Zorn knows the delicate approach required to handle a call because she served in that capacity at a DV shelter in Minnesota.

Moreover, she called a hotline seeking to escape her first marriage. She understands the courage required to make that call.

“They are scared to leave,” she said, mostly because of finances, but also “the psychological trauma is unbelievable.”

Zorn had to rebuild after leaving her first marriage. With the help of an aunt and uncle, Zorn raised her children, got a college education, took jobs in retail and dedicated herself to healing, “but it’s not about me or my story,” she will say.

Instead, she leans on her experience so she can help “people to understand how many individuals experience this” yet give them hope that “you can grow and you can constantly be healing.”

She adds, “I no longer look at myself as a victim ... I am a survivor. I look at myself as someone who had a pretty horrific experience and I will be in lifelong healing.”

And that’s what she seeks to do at Time Out, to help others find their path to healing.

Already, Time Out has campaigns in place to help reach that goal. Time Out has plans to build a new shelter, but with the pandemic, fundraising has proven difficult.

The fall golf tournament and dinner have been canceled, but Zorn and the board plan on doing something to continue enlarging the building fund.

More troubling, however, “the local community is not sending in donations,” she said. “If I had 100 people give $10 per month it would help” to pay for things like the $3,000 to $4,000 utility bills for the multiple properties the shelter runs.

Welsheimer has volunteered to help Zorn get comfortable with grants, which “helps with payroll,” but grants are not free money. They often come with strict limitations and reporting requirements.

And Zorn has an open invitation for volunteers to help in a variety of ways.

With the help of the staff and Welsheimer’s mentoring, Zorn feels confident she can support the shelter and its residents as they move toward healing.

“I now have a voice where I can actually assist people,” she said.

To donate to Time Out, send a check to Time Out, P.O. Box 306, Payson, AZ 85547.

To contact the 24/7 hotline, call 928-472-8007.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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