Darwin McDowell – 2020 Employee of the Year

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 Darwin McDowell.

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.

– Glenny Brock