“9/11 is the reason I got involved in politics and public service. I was living in New York City and working for a public relations firm on the lower end of Manhattan. I was going to work on that beautiful morning, walked out of the Bowling Green Station and the second plane flew over my head. I looked up and thought, ‘That plane is flying really low. Did it just hit the World Trade Center?’ I have had a lot of therapy just to get near a plane. That was my turning point. New York became a close-knit community and strangers clinging together. It made me want to run for office. I lost my job six months after 9/11 because people weren’t doing business in lower New York. I used up all of my savings to stay because I didn’t want to move back to Alabama.
I grew up in the woods of Washington County, but I moved back at the end of 2002 and started working in public relations in the University of Alabama system. I got a masters degree in public administration to see if I really wanted to go into politics. At age 28, I ran for city council in my district in Tuscaloosa. It was predominantly minority and I had blonde hair at the time so they called me the ‘Cinderella of District 7.’ I missed the runoff by 15 votes. Governor Riley noticed and gave me a chance to work on his re-election campaign.
I worked for Bishop State in workforce development but still wanted to be in politics and was contacted to run for state school board. I was raised by a family of educators so I ran. Things got sideways and I lost. Losing is tough. You are selling yourself. I have lost a city, state, and federal election. The more you do it, the easier it gets to lose, but the next time I run and put myself out there again, I am winning at all costs. It is like going down the interstate at 100 miles an hour then someone slams on the breaks and throws you out. As a single woman, I have never had the luxury of campaigning full-time for myself, I have had to keep working and pay the mortgage and the car note. I was still licking the wounds from the school board election when I was asked to run for Congress against Bradley Byrne. I had already used up all of my savings on the school board run, but I ran anyway because running for office is not something I can let go or lock away.
Bradley won and if I thought if I can’t beat them join them. I was going to move to DC and work for him and put the sign in my yard and started packing up my boxes. Then a friend who works with Volunteer America told me I wasn’t going anywhere and made me tour McKemie Place Shelter because they needed a director. I didn’t realize there was even a homeless problem in Mobile. I had tunnel vision when I went downtown and never saw what I was taking for granted. I went home and told God it was up to Him even though I wanted to go to Washington. Two weeks later, I was the director of McKemie Place. It had been open for 10 years and was in debt and terrible shape. It had a bad reputation as a flop house, so we brought in a canine unit once a month. I cut out smoking because they were brawling in the back yard. We got strict about curfew. They hated me and then I earned their respect.
Word on the street now is that this is a safe spot. We have a 90-day rule where they can stay with us for 90 days, no questions asked. Then they have to start meeting with a case manager and have to move out for 60 days, then they can come back for another 90. Some revolve between here and jail or the hospital. The aging process and living on the streets is horrendous on a homeless woman. Some are in their 20’s but look like they are in their 50’s.
Being a director at a women’s shelter can be the most depressing job on the planet and I have had to learn how to manage my emotions. I am a fixer and there are 70 women for me to fix. Plus my staff. I had to learn how to leave my heart in the car and handle the day to day business. I have gotten personally attached to some and they died of cancer or heart failure. That is heart wrenching.
We don’t give them the best diet here, but it is all based on donations that we are thankful to have. Grocery stores donate bread, cakes, and cookies with a lot of carbs and the women gain a lot of weight while they are here. I don’t have the budget to hire a chef or someone to cook but we are fortunate that volunteers have filled up the meal calendar for every day of the year.
There are people in the community who pay for bus rides back home to families. We get people who call me from the bus station who ask how to get here because a lot of transient homeless pass through Mobile. We have over 600 homeless in Mobile and Baldwin County.
15 Place day shelter for the homeless closed in February on my 40th birthday. I will never forget it. We had to scramble to replace services they provided including an address for mail. After 15 Place closed, our women needed a place to go during the day, so we created a day shelter at Springhill Rec Center from 8-4 during the weekdays and we try to have programs for them and sack lunches. It gets them out of the weather because they can’t stay here during the day. Since the losing of 15 Place, our board has a vision of being more than an overnight shelter. This is about humanity, dignity, and compassion.
I treat every woman who walks through this door like they are Jesus. How many of us are a couple of missed paychecks ourselves from being homeless? One woman was staying here during her rape case and she had a bachelor’s degree in finance. I do everything I can to improve the quality of life for someone else. I was put on this earth to be a facilitator and help other people get where they are supposed to be. I give out so many hugs every day. It is just humanity and these women don’t want to be homeless.
It is so hard for them to find affordable housing. Some may have a couple of thousands in the bank, but a few months of $600 rent or mortgage and that is gone quick. That doesn’t include power and water. Often they have to choose between paying water the water or power bill or their prescriptions.
I am 40 and would still like to have a family, but I haven’t had time to even date. This is a 24-hour operation. We have 2 shifts, 4- midnight and midnight to 8. 7 days a week. homeless doesn’t take a day off so we can’t either. It is taxing and draining. I don’t know what I would do without my church and friends who keep filling me up. It is a giving job, there is nothing to take from anyone. McKemie Place has completely changed in the three years that I have been here. It was almost closing its doors, but I have run it like a business and we are own firm financial ground now. My dream is to build a new shelter.
There are numerous successes. Adrian came from the Midwest and was extremely smart and fixed all of our IT problems. She just needed a place to stay while she was in school. We helped her get a scholarship and her placed with someone who gave her a good place to stay. Now she works for the Mobile public school system probably making twice as much as I do.
A lot of people don’t see themselves when they see someone who is homeless or standing by the road with a sign. They don’t think about how one bad decision that snowballs out of control can change your life. Or their health failed them, they lost a job, or put their faith in the wrong person.
These women deserve respect. You don’t know who they were in their past, or who they could be in their future. We are looking to turn the people we are serving into servants for others. At some point, we hope they are so filled that they turn around and care for someone else. Some come back and say McKemie Place changed their lives. You can’t get this from any other job. I hope I have blessed them as much as they have blessed me. My eyes are wide open and this forced me outside my bubble.
Two years ago, I was hit by a car when I was leaving a late lunch at the Bull and walking across the street. I was in a trauma unit at USA for 11 days and in rehab for 2 weeks. I have had two hit surgeries. It has been an emotional roller coaster but everything is a lesson to learn that helps me understand what other people go through and will make me a better leader in office. You can’t hold public office without being compassionate, and I have learned so much caring and fighting for the homeless community. After the wreck, I was in a wheelchair and then a walker for four months, now I understand people with physical disabilities.
I now know a little about a whole lot. I have a quote on my wall that says, ‘Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.'”
How you can help McKemie Place:
McKemie place gets a $5 voucher for ever bag donated at any Goodwill on the Gulf Coast, just write McKemie Place on the Good Samaritan Form.
“When my guests need something, the take vouchers and go to Goodwill. Shopping is also a self-esteem booster because when they come here their self esteem is in the toilet. When they move into an apartment, I give them vouchers to help them get things they need.”
You can also serve meals, make sack lunches or buy a few things they need on Wish list Wednesday. They post the list on Facebook.