Where There’s Hope, There’s Fire

CrisisMeg McGlamery, executive director of the Crisis Center, on the passion that fuels heavy work.

Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne

Photo by Beau Gustafson

There’s a place in Birmingham where people who are experiencing personal crisis of any kind can go. There are people there who look up when the door opens, ready to take care of whoever has just walked in. There are people there who are ready to sit and talk for hours, if that’s what it takes. Maybe the most important thing is simply that there are people there, people who are ready.

That place is the Crisis Center, Inc., which is celebrating 45 years of service to the Birmingham community. And the woman heading that place up has the biggest smile you’ve ever seen in your life. “I feel like a lot of it is luck that I found the Crisis Center,” she says. Lucky for the Crisis Center, too. A Memphis, Tennessee, native, Meg McGlamery came to Birmingham for college at Samford University in 1993. “As soon as I entered into this city, I knew it was home,” she says. “I’ve moved twice since I came for college, but I’ve always come back. This is where my heart is. And I really do believe that it’s because this is where I became who I am.”

She found her way to the Crisis Center via her interest and background in the area of sexual violence care. That began at Florida State University, which is where McGlamery received her master’s in higher education and administration. There, she was a part of the victim advocate program, which offered specialized care to victims and survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking—any kind of situation like that. “It wasn’t a counseling center, but it was specialized for people who had been victimized. That really changed my perspective,” she says. “I expected to go work at a college and plan events on a college campus, but this lit a fire for me.” From there, McGlamery went to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, a Jesuit institution focused on social justice. “Florida State really taught me how to advocate for people; Gonzaga really taught me to look for the root issues of problems and make change happen,” she says.

When her now-husband, Chris Richardson, suffered a stroke in 2004, he and McGlamery decided to move back to Birmingham to be closer to friends and family. She’d loved her work at Gonzaga but was interested in working more directly with victims and survivors. “In looking for a job, I knew this was the opportunity to move in the direction of working with survivors,” she explains. She found her place—McGlamery started at the Crisis Center as the rape response public awareness coordinator. That was 10 years ago, and this April, she celebrated one year as the executive director of the Crisis Center.  “With the Crisis Center, I didn’t know if it was going to be long-term—I really had no idea what I was walking into,” she says. “I pinch myself now because I can’t even believe it’s taken the course that it’s taken, and I’m so grateful that it has. I’m still learning and appreciating the opportunity to grow.”

The Crisis Center’s heart is to help anyone in personal crisis, a massive undertaking. It’s broken down into three main branches: suicide services, sexual assault services, and mental illness services. Beyond that, there are numerous programs, each designed to support specific needs. McGlamery began in the sexual assault services division, and the people affected by that hold a special place in her heart. She describes the services the Crisis Center offers to victims and survivors of sexual abuse or assault with pride. One such service is the Rape Response Program (205-323-7273), which has more than 80 volunteers. “These are people who choose to spend their time waiting by the phone in case somebody is hurt in this way so they can be there with them,” McGlamery says. “To witness that every day—people signing up to help someone—it is amazing.” Another is the SANE program, which stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, or a nurse with special training to aid survivors of sexual violence. “We rebuilt the SANE program completely and are thankful that it’s here in this building now. I’d worked with survivors before coming here and had always worked with them in a hospital setting, so I didn’t understand what SANE really was and why that was special or different,” she says. “But I learned really quickly that our hospitals are so busy doing very important work. When it comes to a survivor of sexual violence, of course they care about them immensely, but if somebody is having a heart attack, that’s going to take precedence—it has to. In the cases I worked prior to coming to Birmingham, the survivors spent 8, 10, 12 hours in a hospital, where we can see a survivor start to finish in under two hours.” Indeed, there is an exam room right in the Crisis Center—it has some elements of a hospital, like an exam chair, but it’s also much cozier and gentler.

Now that she’s moved into the role of executive director, McGlamery also oversees the other two divisions, suicide services and mental health services. She says it’s startling how many people have been affected by suicide in some way or another, either by completing themselves, attempting themselves, or knowing someone who has done one of those. The Crisis Center has a dual approach to this issue: they’re interested in both caring for people who are suicidal, but also in prevention. There are prevention and awareness programs that both hope to educate people on how to care for people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts or tendencies (whether that’s themselves or others) and seek to challenge the stigma associated with suicide. The 24-hour Crisis Hotline (205-323-7777) is a resource for anyone who’s dealing with suicide (or any other personal crisis) in any way, and at the Crisis Center, there are numerous people trained to help people as well (anyone is welcome to walk in and ask for help.) “The Crisis and Suicide Line is the cornerstone program of the Crisis Center. In 1970, a few thoughtful, forward-thinking individuals came together and set up shop in the basement of Birmingham City Hall to answer the first calls on the hotline,” McGlamery says. “Today we answer more than 30,000 calls on the hotline, in addition to the calls we take on the Kids Help Line, Teen Link, and Senior Talk Line—all designed to help people in crisis.” The other division, the Mental Health Association, focuses on mental health support for other illnesses, including depression and bipolar disorder. The programs work out of the two extensions of the Crisis Center (Piper Place and Piper Place West) and offer support groups, counseling, and more. “Over 200 adults with mental illness participate in the Mental Health Association’s day programs providing a range of activities to assist in their psycho-social recovery. Some of my favorite moments at the Crisis Center come from outings with the consumers,” she says. “A few years ago, we planned an outing to see The Soloist with Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. The movie is about a man with mental illness. The discussions with consumers that were had after the movie were so impactful. It reminded me how important it is for each of us to know that we are never alone—even if we feel like that at any given time.”

The Crisis Center currently has three locations—in the United Way building on Eighth Avenue South (the central office); Piper Place, on Eighth Avenue West; and Piper Place West, in Bessemer. A fourth location, in Blount County, is in the works. McGlamery says her priority each day is to get to each of the locations every day to check in with her people. She has learned, though, to be flexible and let the day offer what it will. “When I came into this job, I had my lists of all the places to go and who to talk to, and I had them on my wall. I even had time frames—this week I’m going to do this, and next week, I’m going to do that,” she says with a smile. “But the phone rings, and everything stops. We don’t know if that call is going to be someone who is suicidal, or someone who has been sexually assaulted, or someone who’s been kicked out of their boarding home. Whatever that issue is, everything changes. So I come in with what I hope to accomplish in a day, and I don’t beat myself up if it doesn’t get done. My main goal is to check in with every person who works here in some capacity, even if it’s for two minutes, to make sure they have what they need that day to feel like they can leave here and feel good about it, because the work is heavy enough.”

Like McGlamery says, the work at the Crisis Center is heavy. She says that sometimes she can’t watch hard stuff on TV because it’s just too real for her; she sees those things every day and supports a team of people who see it, too. And the programs and services that have been included here are just a fraction of the tremendous work they do—every day is different and hard and beautiful. “The most difficult part is the fact that all this stuff is happening, that it’s real,” she says. “Most people don’t want to talk about what we do: we’re talking about rape, suicide, and mental illness. I’m a lot of fun at a party when people ask, ‘What do you do?’ These are the subjects that people don’t really want to believe are happening. The fact that we see and witness them makes it difficult. But what’s equally as difficult is the stigma that’s associated with all of that and fighting it—that’s just constant.” The work at the Crisis Center is heavy, but meaningful—so meaningful that McGlamery has that great big smile on most days. “I love seeing the courage that it takes for people to come forward—that blows me away,” she says. “Sometimes it’s showing up, sometimes they call the police, sometimes it’s calling a friend, and they contact us. Every day is a little different, every situation is a little different. It could be the person who is suicidal walks through the door, and that’s the most rewarding part.

“At the end of the day, we talk about the hard stuff and cry a little bit, talk about the good stuff and laugh a little bit. And then we get ready for the next day.”

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