Women Making a Mark: Kathy Colbenson

She’s empowering people to take charge of their lives

Lessons learned early in life are often the ones that stick. That’s certainly true for Kathy Colbenson, president and CEO of CHRIS 180, a behavioral health and child welfare organization. Her father, a minister, was active in the civil rights movement. In 1955, he preached a sermon that said you can’t be both a Christian and a bigot. His position—unpopular at the time—cost him, says Colbenson. But he believed in doing what was right.

“The belief system that guided him, and the faith that guided him, is also what guides me,” says Colbenson, 68. “We have to help people live their lives with dignity, and that means empowering them to be responsible, to make choices, to take charge of their lives, and to give them the opportunities to do that.”

To that end, CHRIS 180 offers everything from housing and mental health counseling to skill building and training for the workforce. It specializes in helping people recover from trauma. “Therapy doesn’t change anything that happened to you. It changes you—and how you move forward,” says Colbenson, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “We can learn, grow, and do better.”

CHRIS 180 has grown tremendously since Colbenson took over as CEO in 1987. Back then, it had basically one program and less than 20 employees. Now, it has more than 400 employees and an annual budget of around $29 million.

“We’re not the organization that just gives out sandwiches or provides shelter. We do that, but that’s the hook sometimes to come in. Our goal is to help people make change,” she explains.

Outside of work, Colbenson is married and has two adult daughters, three cats, and three dogs. She enjoys spending time outside. When asked what she is most proud of, professionally, Colbenson mentions a program for homeless LGBTQ youth. When CHRIS 180 started the program in 2000, it was the first of its kind in the Southeast.

“There were some people who stopped giving to us, but we did the right thing,” she says about the program. “That’s what I’m proud of: At CHRIS 180, we do the right thing.”