AUGUSTA — Liz Helitzer will have a lot of time to reflect on her tenure as executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.

She’s leaving in early April to hike the entire Appalachian Trail before starting a music therapy graduate school program in Ireland.

Helitzer, 34, came to the center — located in the Michael Klahr Center at the University of Maine at Augusta — six years ago and in her time leading the nonprofit organization the last few years, she’s helped expand its educational outreach, diversify its finances and become a leading defender of human rights in central Maine.

“This hasn’t been simply a 9-to-5 gig,” Helitzer said in an interview. “It’s all about caring about your community, caring about the world and caring about other people.”

Helitzer said she is proud of is the expansion of the number and types of exhibits at the center and the partnerships with individuals and organizations that have helped increase the visibility of the center statewide. The center holds regular speaker talks, events and exhibits aiming to promote “universal respect for human rights through outreach and education” that draw upon “the lessons of the Holocaust and other events past and present … to confront prejudice, intolerance and discrimination,” according to its website.

David Greenham, the center’s program director, will become interim director on Wednesday. He began working with Helitzer at The Theater at Monmouth, where he was the producing artistic director, and he said she’ll be missed.

Helitzer is leaving the center “in great shape and poised to move forward under the leadership of others,” Greenham said. “At the same time, she’s embarking on a couple of brand new adventures, and it’s all very joyous.”

The first adventure begins next week when Helitzer heads to Georgia to begin the approximately 2,175-mile hike through 14 states along the Appalachian Trail. She plans on making it back to Maine in August — school starts in September — by hiking 10-hours each day.

Hiking the trail has been a dream since childhood, Helitzer said, and she said now is the perfect time to make the trek before heading off to the University of Limerick in late summer.

She’ll carry about 30 pounds of supplies on her journey, including three to six days worth of food, four pairs of shoes and a small Swiss Army knife. She said they’ll be plenty of hikers out there carrying more than twice what she’s got, but she wants to hike light.

And there won’t be a camera, aside from the one in her cellphone.

“I’m not a big picture person. I just like to be in the moment,” she said.

The sale of her house closed Friday and her belongings will be stored in her mom’s basement while she’s in Ireland for two years. She’ll live in a graduate students-only dorm with three suite mates, which she said will be interesting because she hasn’t lived with anyone in a long time.

Helitzer said she didn’t decide to pursue music therapy until last summer. It combines her two passions — music and helping people in need — so when she was thinking about what to do after leaving the center, it was a logical choice.

“It’s a therapeutic practice that has been around for quite some time, but it seems to have more research and a stronger foothold now,” she said. “I had heard of it but hadn’t researched it much.”

Going back to school after so much time away might be a challenge for some, but Helitzer said she’s looking forward the challenge and that she’s better equipped now than had she done a graduate program after finishing undergraduate studies.

“I have such a better grounding in who I am and what I want, and my academic focus will be sharper or more specifically aimed,” she said. Reading, completing and turning in assignments and taking exams, she conceded, will be different with all the advances in technology.

Helitzer doesn’t know what she’ll do when she completes her program in two years, but she said she should have some flexibility and plenty of job options because there is a greater need for music therapists than there are actual music therapists. She said she’ll always have a place in her heart and mind for the center’s community.

“I am and will remain very passionate about the work of the center and its mission,” she said. “The Holocaust and human rights issues have always been a part of who I am and my core values.”

The next executive director will have to be a strong fundraiser, Helitzer said, and needs to be able to figure out how to remain financially stable while continuing to prove the center is needed and wanted.

She said she foresees the next director continuing to grow the education outreach program, but in order to do that, the center will need to hire more educators, which comes at a cost. There is the potential to expand, Helitzer said, but it has to make sense financially.

Greenham said Helitzer is a skilled bookkeeper who helped the center formalize and upgrade its accounting systems, and she led the process of starting the center’s endowment.

“She’s been a wonderful teammate and friend, and I’ll miss her,” Greenham said. “At the same time, I can’t think of a better way for her to head out through a new wilderness and to a wonderful new career.”

The center board has created a search committee that is considering working with a consultant to post the job profile and sift through the applications. Helitzer said their hope is to have a new executive director in place by Sept. 1.

While she’ll hiking through six national parks, hitchhiking into towns along the way and then studying music therapy in Ireland, Helitzer will look back on her time at the center with pride.

She said in the first newsletter she wrote said she wanted to make the center a place that’s welcoming and warm.

“I think it is now,” she said. “I’ve been forever changed by this job.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundi

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