Each year we celebrate our stellar staff by naming a select few Employees of the Year. In a year like no other, all of the Firehouse workers poured themselves into our guests day after day, serving in more ways than any job description could capture. Three individuals received special recognition: programs assistant Allysa Rapadas; maintenance supervisor Donald Turner; and weekend security lead Darwin McDowell. Journalist Glenny Brock visited The Firehouse last week to see these staff members in action. Below you can read her profiles of these outstanding Firehouse workers.
Allysa Rapadas – Programs Assistant
At age 22, Allysa Rapadas is the youngest employee at the Firehouse. And before she was the youngest employee, she was the only high school-age intern in the organization’s 37-year history.
Rapadas first visited the Firehouse during her junior year at Homewood High School when she was participating in Youth Leadership Birmingham. The tour was brief — “I don’t think it went past, ‘here’s the kitchen, here’s the clothes closet,’” Rapadas remembers — but the energetic staff made a big impression on her. She reached out to executive director Anne Rygiel about volunteer opportunities and made a case for herself.
As a high school intern, she was limited in what she could do on-site. “I remember a lot of stuffing envelopes and working in the clothes closet,” Rapadas says. But once she turned 18, she could pivot to frontline action and spend more time interacting with guests.
I spent a few hours with Rapadas on a recent Monday morning and she seemed to complete a full workweek before lunchtime. Her title is Programs Assistant and Transportation, which turns out to be code for Whatever Needs Doing. That could be serving lunch, receiving donations at the loading dock, organizing the clothes closet, or securing the day-shelter area for women that opens each day at 11 a.m. But on the Monday before Christmas, she had different things on her to-do list. She picked up a resident of Nashamah, the 20-unit apartment building the Firehouse owns in North Birmingham, and drove him to his job at UAB Hospital. She delivered 23 hot lunches to Safe Haven, another property owned and managed by the Firehouse, which provides transitional housing for men with mental illness.
She opened the door four or five times for current shelter guests who had questions about lunch, laundry, whether the mail had run, whether they could use the computer lab. Of each of these guys she asked, “Do you have your ID?” “Where’s your ID?” “If you have an ID, do you have a lanyard?” Over and over again she said, “Just make sure you have your ID out where we can see it. Otherwise we can’t let you in.”
Rapadas seemed to know almost everyone’s name, whether or not their IDs were visible.
“My goal is to learn at least one name a day,” she says. “I wish I could learn — and remember! — the name of every one of the guests. I never like the feeling of not remembering someone’s name, especially when they remember mine. Of course, they only have to remember four or five names of staff and volunteers, and we have more than a hundred guys as guests here. It’s impossible, of course, but I try. It’s important.”
Rapadas answered the phone over and over again, fielding questions about COVID tests and bed availability. Working with wellness coordinator Sherri Foster and shelter coordinator Rob Davis, Rapadas had already done two intakes by 11 a.m. This meant taking men’s temperatures and asking them to empty their pockets, then patting them down and checking their bags for contraband. (No weapons or illegal drugs are allowed at all, of course, but guests have the option of storing pocket knives, multitools or medication.) This intimate interaction could be awkward — a grown man having his person and bags searched by a woman half his age. But Rapadas handles such interactions with a nonchalant calm.
“ I can’t imagine a job where I would be only sitting behind a desk or doing the same thing over and over again,” Rapadas says. “Here I learn something new every day — from the guests, from staff, from volunteers ”
When the pace is frenetic, Rapadas says, the biggest day-to-day challenge is slowing down enough to prioritize personal connections, especially with guests.
“I always try to slow down or stop and just say hi,” she says. “It goes back to remembering someone’s name, or just saying hi to someone and looking them in the eye.”
She works 30 hours per week, commuting from Tuscaloosa, where she is earning a degree in public health from the University of Alabama. Because of her experience at the Firehouse, Rapadas may pursue a master’s degree in social work. She especially admires the work of the case managers, “who get to sit down wherever someone is and help them figure out where they are going,” she says. “There are so many different paths. “Plenty of people warn against social work because of the burnout,” Rapadas says. “But after what I’ve done at the Firehouse, I don’t think that’s really going to be a problem for me.”
Donald Turner – maintenance supervisor
As the maintenance supervisor for Firehouse Ministries, Donald “Don” Turner is all over the place. He is responsible for repairs, service, and upkeep at the 40,000-square-foot emergency shelter and at least three other sites that provide transitional and permanent housing. Firehouse manages four apartment buildings. That means Turner takes care of beds and bathrooms for more than 200 guests at five different sites, plus roofs, refrigerators, kitchen sinks, tile floors, water heaters, air conditioners — literally every major appliance or object that goes into making these places homes for the homeless. His job takes him to Safe Haven, a 24-unit apartment building in North Birmingham for men with mental illness; Cooperative Downtown Ministries (CDM), a Fountain Heights apartment complex with 20 residents; and Nashamah Transitional Housing, where 50 men live in about two dozen units.
Turner is a conscientious steward of all that real estate, but one room means more than the rest.
“When you start at Nashamah, it’s three people living in a two-bedroom apartment — two guys in one room and another guy in a single room, and you have to work your way up to the single-man room,” he says. “When I was in apartment #10, I worked my way up to that single-man room. So every time I go in apartment #10 now, I beeline to the single-man room just to see if they’re keeping it up like I used to.”
Turner spent two years as a resident at Nashamah — after 64 days as a guest at the original Firehouse and 28 days at a drug-and-alcohol treatment facility in Mobile, Ala. When he arrived at the Firehouse on Feb. 13, 2005, he had lived on the street for eight years. “I hadn’t slept in a real bed in five years except in jail or the hospital,” Turner says. “But when I got here I had a made-up mind.”
Turner had a long career in construction, even during the years he now calls his “journey in drug abuse.”
“I like to tell people I went to a party when I was 15 and I didn’t leave until I was 43,” he says. He managed to work, even in active addiction. Sometimes coworkers would need a ride at the end of a shift and they would ask Turner to drop them off at the Firehouse. When he decided to get sober, the old shelter was the obvious destination.
“This was the only place I knew to come,” he says.
Fifteen years later, we are sitting in his small, tidy office, which opens into the lunchroom of the emergency shelter. 2020 has been so busy, he explains, that our interview might only be his 10th time in his office all year.
“All my life, I never wanted a job where I was confined in one area,” Turner says. “My wife likes to tease me. She says, ‘I can’t get you to do anything, but if the Firehouse calls, you jump!’ She is just teasing, though. I was doing this when I met her.”
(I can confirm she is just teasing. Turner’s wife Wanda called his cell phone during our visit. He answered and said, “Hey, baby, I’m in an interview, can I call you back? Unless you want to be a part of this interview?” Before she could answer, he put her on speaker. She was a very good sport.
“What do you think of his commitment to the Firehouse?” I asked.
“It’s outstanding,” Wanda said. “It’s everything to him.”)
Turner doesn’t have to be at work until 7 a.m., but he wakes up every morning at 3:45 a.m., preparing for his workday with prayer and silent meditation. There is always a chance that he can help somebody get clean — not with formal counseling or testimony but with focus on his own work.
“Sometimes when you’re talking, people don’t want to listen,” he says. “And that’s fine. But if they see it in action, it’s something different.”
According to Turner, he keeps in contact with some of the guys he was homeless with. They see him working at the shelter — and remember him from the streets. He recalls his own despair from those days. It was not a good feeling, he says, to always walk with your head down. But where so many people shun homeless men on the street, Turner identifies with their pain and draws as close as he can.
“I really love dealing with the homeless and people who suffer with substance abuse and alcohol,” he says. And I love the Firehouse Shelter because this is really where I got my start in life. I don’t consider it a job. Just to be able to come here and serve where I came to be served — that’s a big-turnaround.”
Darwin McDowell – Weekend Security
Darwin McDowell was up all night last Friday and Saturday. He was still grinding on Sunday, too, finally heading to bed at dawn on Monday when most people were waking up to start their work week. He has been on this timetable for almost three years, ever since he started working weekend security at the Firehouse emergency shelter.
“My role is to make sure there are no extra activities going on,” he says. “That means there are no drugs being used, no drugs being distributed. I encourage them to get to bed and rest. I’m keeping the guys safe from each other.”
An Alabama native, McDowell was only a year old when he moved to Chicago with his mother. Family connection brought him back often enough during childhood that he thinks of Birmingham as home.
“I did most of my important growing up here,” he says.
McDowell graduated from Wenonah High School, then won a four-year scholarship to play football at Albany State University (ASU) in Albany, Ga. He lived in Chicago for 30 years, then moved to Milwaukee, Wisc., where he was “delivered from addiction.”
Because he has experienced homelessness, McDowell is more kindred spirit than warden.
“I just feel for these guys,” he says. “I don’t feel sorry for them. I feel their pain. When I get to talk to the men that come through here, I remember the time that I was living in a shelter.” In addition to his security work, McDowell works at the Foundry, a substance abuse recovery ministry based in Bessemer, Ala. Firehouse executive director Anne Rygiel praises the dedication McDowell shows to his part-time job.
“What I appreciate about Darwin is that he always prioritizes the Firehouse,’ Rygiel says.
According to McDowell, the commitment is all about time management.
“I give each job 100 percent when I’m there,” McDowell says. “I stay present.”
His shifts are 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday; he clocks in a short time before the second-shift staff members leave. He gets a briefing on the events of the day and a roster of guests who will check into the shelter overnight. (Intake cut-off is 6 p.m., but men who do overnight shift work are allowed to check in later with approval from their case managers.)
“When I interact with the second shift, they let me know who is at the shelter already and who is coming,” McDowell explains. “They might tell me what has happened during that day and what I need to prepare for.”
Guards from a private security firm also work overnight at the Firehouse, but otherwise McDowell is the only staff member on site. Despite his limited interaction with his colleagues and volunteers, he recognizes that he is part of a compassionate crew. “I have a bunch of coworkers who are very caring people,” McDowell says. “The number one thing to work here — you must be able to care about individuals without judging.” McDowell describes his workmates as encouraging and humble. “They set the example and set the tone of being patient, being gentle — each being a person that just loves.”
That, he says, is what draws men to the Firehouse in the first place and sometimes gives them the strength to move on from the shelter.
“Knowing that someone cares and is behind you, supporting you — that is what makes you
want to transition into a better situation.”
McDowell spends time with the shelter guests when many of the men are the most tired — just before bed and then again at the start of the day. He realizes this is precious time.
“Just to be able to conversate with them — to connect with them before they go to bed or in the morning at breakfast — it means a lot.”
He grieves the times when he sees other men give up hope.
“The most challenging thing is sometimes seeing guys that don’t want to do anything,” McDowell says. “It’s hard. I think that in the first year it was especially challenging for me. I would see some guys and wonder, ‘Are they taking heed to what I said?’ Some guys did real good. They’ve moved on and some call me now and say, ‘Man, I appreciate it. I appreciate the time you took to talk to me.’ That makes me feel good — to know that I could do what God has called me to do.”
McDowell aspires to be caring and sensitive to the men he meets at the shelter and cites his mother as a role model for how to take action.
“I think about how she continued to pour into me during my struggles,” he says. “To pour into someone’s life is to take the time to sit down and listen to them — not to sit down and judge them, but sit down and listen — and pour into them whatever you’ve got.”
McDowell strives to be that patient, recognizing he sets nobody’s schedule but his own.