The Fighter

Kristy Eckert

The Wild Irish Rose bottle was never good news. So when the kids saw it in Dad's hands, they braced themselves. I know it's going to be a bad night, Karen Days, the youngest of six, would think.

He wouldn't hit them. But he would hurt them nonetheless, spewing venom at them and the hymn-singing mother they adored. You're ugly! You're fat! No one will ever want you!

Gary "Sunny" Days was a tank battalion sergeant in the Korean War scarred by slitting throats and beheading the enemy. He was whip smart-genius, perhaps-but an alcoholic who worked in a factory. He stopped hitting his wife when she started hitting back. One night, during one of his rants, a young Karen Days walked downstairs. "If you want to kill us all," she told him, "just kill us all." He began to sob. "I have killed more people with these hands than anyone should kill," he said.

At age 8, Days-the sibling ringleader, despite her age-concocted a plan. If they unscrewed all of the light bulbs on the first floor, where Dad slept, he couldn't navigate the dark in his drunken stupor.

So on the lower level of a small home in Columbus' crime-riddled Linden neighborhood, before they went to their attic beds at night, the Days kids would typically go light to light, unscrewing bulbs so their father couldn't rage through the house, knocking things over.

Now 43, Days is fighting abuse on a bigger front. She helps physically, sexually and emotionally battered women and children citywide as president of the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence, and is poised to lead the expanding organization into a new era.

"This is an issue that she truly cares very deeply about. And that just comes across when you interact with her in almost any way," said Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network. "Not only does she care about it, but she takes that passion and puts it into action."

Curled comfortably on her couch in a T-shirt and jeans, nibbling at a small plate of her savory homemade mac-n-cheese and occasionally snuggling her labs Elvis and Costello, Days talks fast and laughs easily. She is intense-especially when she is listening (she doesn't forget a thing, friends say)-but disarming.

She seems to have no secrets, no airs.

Her career? A wonderful accident. Days did not set out as a victim-turned-champion. In fact, because she never was hit, she didn't realize she suffered abuse until she was well into her career. (She now understands that her father's emotional abuse contributed to low self-esteem among all his children.) As a teen, she wanted simply to graduate high school, get a job, and afford her own place so she could convince her mother to move in and leave her dad. But her friends at Beechcroft High School started talking about college applications, and she couldn't be left out. She enrolled at Ohio State University and worked three jobs-bank teller, waitress, nighttime truck driver-while earning her degree in criminology. She hoped to investigate homicides. A generous professor recognized her talent and situation, and found her a state job at the Office of Criminal Justice Services so she could focus on her passion. "He changed the trajectory of my life," Days said. She became the only of her family's six children to graduate college, worked her way through various state jobs, moved to the United Way, and eventually caught the attention of Abigail Wexner, who founded The Coalition. Today, she has an MBA and has been honored by the YWCA as a Woman of Achievement.

Her weight? Days used to be a size 20. Her mom, who never did get out, died of an obesity-related heart attack at 52. Shortly before turning 40, Days, who is single, decided she wanted to fulfill her longtime dream of having a child. She made plans to be artificially inseminated. "Everybody was just so excited and happy that finally I was going to have a baby," she said. "It was just this need that I thought I'm not a real woman until I have a kid." Frightened she may meet her mother's fate, Days knew she did not want to add more pounds to her already-overweight body. So she had gastric bypass surgery and lost 120 pounds. One night, for whatever reason, she realized she is a woman-child or not. She decided not to have a baby on her own. But she's happy the process led to a healthier lifestyle that now includes six small meals a day and occasional Jolly Ranchers rather than White Castle sliders. She wears a size 6. Her ankles don't hurt. Her knees don't ache. And when she went to Italy, she could walk everywhere.

Her indulgence? Traveling. From Kelleys Island to Barbados, Days enjoys exploring. She often goes with family, including her 9-year-old great-niece Koryn, whose photos adorn the house. (Days raised her on weekends until she was 3, still often hosts sleepovers, and is responsible for teaching her Lionel Richie songs. "She's it for me," Days said.)

Her regret? Not finding a mate, despite being engaged twice. She brought up the subject herself one morning, after apologetically taking a call on her BlackBerry from a woman who needed to bump back a meeting because her husband's tooth surgery ran long. Days cancelled the meeting. "No, no-take care of your husband," Days told her. "Just take care of yourself-take care of him." She set down her phone and looked up. "If you ask me what regrets I have, it's that," she said, frankly. "I didn't cultivate a relationship. And once you have that, you can't take it for granted." (Just for the record: She's open to dates.)

As professional as Days is, it's that honesty others most admire."I'd describe her as one of the most dedicated and passionate and well-versed professionals I've encountered in any nonprofit," Wexner said. "But what I think most everyone sees is that incredibly warm heart and the sincerity of who she is."

Sometimes, the hurt seems unending. There are inner-city kids who have been abused so long they don't know it's not normal. There are suburban housewives whose husbands record their odometers before they leave for work to assure they don't go anywhere else. Some come for help, only to return to the perpetrator. Over and over.

Days often feels frustrated.

She finds strength in feedback forms from victims her group has helped. "When you hear victims say, 'I didn't know anyone cared,' those kinds of things are necessary," Days said. "It grounds you again to know that people are being helped."

And when people question whether abuse is truly a problem in this community?

"That," Days said, "makes me tick."

So she swims through a sea of other people's pain, determined to fight her fight.

"I think it's really easy in this kind of work to get totally overwhelmed," Wexner said. "Somehow, she has an amazing spirit that regenerates."

Days' efforts are paying off. Wexner tapped Days to lead The Coalition when she founded it in 1998. Days turned a one-woman show that started with her and a board of directors, into an operation with 10 fulltime employees. Now, The Coalition is merging with The Center for Child and Family Advocacy, and Days will oversee the beefed-up operation where roughly 125 people from the police department, hospital, prosecutor's office and more work on any given day.

Days knows how complicated abusive relationships can be. A few years before her father died in 2000, he got sober. He gave advice. He worried like a typical parent. "I wish my mom would have known that man," Days said.

It's natural, then, that one of her goals is to work with families, with mothers. She hopes to be a partner in creating a safer home "rather than someone who is going to swoop in."

If someone's ready for the task, Days' admirers say, it's her.

"She's very up-front, and she's very, very knowledgeable," said Sharon McCoy-Reichard, executive director at CHOICES for Victims of Domestic Violence. "The style of leadership she has is just amazing, especially when it comes to domestic violence, which is not a pleasant thing."

It's not pleasant at all. So she fights the same way she did as an 8-year-old kid unscrewing light bulbs-with smarts and gumption and a need to protect those she loves, even if she doesn't know them yet.

"It's the first thing she thinks about when she wakes up and the last thing she thinks about when she goes to sleep," said her niece, Tonowoa Days. "It really does define her. That's who she is."