Each year the Firehouse celebrates 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 profile of Allysa Rapadas.
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.”
– Glenny Brock