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 Donald Turner.
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.”
– Glenny Brock