After more than a decade as executive director of Key Peninsula Community Services in Home, Penny Gazabat is retiring at the end of December.
Her trajectory, from volunteering with the local PTA to advocacy work for victims of domestic violence to leadership at KPCS, was a natural progression.
KPCS board member Marcia Harris said, “Penny took the organization to the next level. Behind the scenes, in her low-key way, she has developed so many relationships. I have seen her build bridges in the community, reach out and make a difference.”
Gazabat grew up in Tacoma and left soon after high school. She moved to the Key Peninsula and first worked as a hostess at Pearls by the Sea in Purdy (where Massimo’s is now located). She met her first husband, Fred Gazabat, and they married and had three boys.
She helped run her husband’s contracting business but spent most of those early years at home and volunteering in KP schools, serving as PTA president at both Vaughn Elementary and Key Peninsula Middle Schools. In the early 1990s, she helped bring Communities in Schools of Peninsula to Vaughn. She later returned to school herself and incorporated her CISP work with a work-study project. “I never ended up with a degree, but I did end up with a great education in human services and criminal justice,” she said. “Back then you had to choose one study area, but now they offer degrees geared to more than one discipline.”
CISP Executive Director Colleen Speer said, “Penny will be truly missed in the nonprofit community of the KP. Her service delivery model at Key Peninsula Community Services over the years has been invaluable to the clients she serves. Penny is a true leader with a ‘stick to it’ attitude.”
Gazabat also worked on domestic violence issues, representing the local community at the Pierce County Commission Against Violence. “There is a kid factor in domestic violence, so that work also had an effect on the CISP work, with presentations for parents and teachers at KPMS along with in-service training for Peninsula School District personnel. Those were busy years. I co-chaired two domestic violence conferences with the city of Gig Harbor’s police department and court administrator and gave presentations at conferences in Chicago and New York.”
Gazabat ran a safehouse on the KP for victims of domestic violence and sheltered women and their children—providing shelter, food and clothing for up to three months until the women could get back on their feet. “It was complicated, but so worthwhile. We brought awareness of the issue to both the Tacoma and Key Peninsula communities.”
The KP Community Services job opened up in 2007. The Geneva Foundation, which provided funding for the safehouse and also for the voucher program at the KPCS food bank, told her about the job and also told the KPCS board to take a look at her if she applied for the position.
When Gazabat took over, the senior lunch program, van shopping trips and food bank were already operating. She described a hard start as, in her words, the previous director had not left much of a paper trail. Over the years, sometimes because the staff and volunteers recognized needs, sometimes because others approached her, KPCS added programs and services to its core activities.
Edie Morgan, founder of The Mustard Seed Project, recollected those early days. “I remember the evening Penny asked me if I thought she should apply for that job. I told her to go for it, knowing she was just the person that organization needed at that time. She led KPCS to a high level of professionalism that was seriously needed, while retaining and honoring its grassroots Key Peninsula heritage.”
Gazabat was widowed after 31 years of marriage. A few years ago, she reconnected with a friend from her Tacoma school days, Cory Bission. Several Lincoln High School friends were working through Facebook interactions to cheer him up after the death of his wife of 43 years, who had been one of Gazabat’s best friends. The group then started to have small reunions, getting together in Tacoma. Gradually romance blossomed: Gazabat and Bission were married Sept. 15.
The two will travel to Arizona in January to investigate the possibility of a future as snowbirds and then return home. “We still have to decide on a permanent landing spot, but we plan to stay on the peninsula for four or five years. I have a dog who is 8, and I can’t imagine her living in a city—she’s a country girl,” said Gazabat. Bission, she added, has embraced country living. “Give him a John Deere riding mower and he’s in seventh heaven. We split and stacked three cords of wood last weekend.”