Deborah Everson grew up in Brilliant, Ohio, current population: 1,482. “There was one bank, one funeral home, one high school and several churches. Everyone knew everyone else, and it had the sweet benefits of small-town life at a time when it was safe for kids to be out catching lightning bugs at night,” she says of her idyllic hometown where, as a girl, she took note of her mother’s selflessness. “Her life was simple, and the way she lived it was simple — a life of hospitality, generosity and commitment,” Deborah says of her mother.
Although she began her career as the first female customer service representative at the largest commercial printing company in the world (at the time), Deborah followed her heart to Birmingham, to EBSCO Media. “I didn’t want to live the lifestyle of a major corporate sales rep, with all the trappings that can alter your life in not-so-positive ways. So, this Yankee girl moved South and started a new life.” This new path set her on a journey of spiritual renewal and a career that embodies the altruistic virtues she so admired in her mother.
As Director of Volunteer Services and Church Relations at First Light shelter, Deborah is the nonprofit’s human command center. She does everything from grant writing, website and social media management, and donor database and gift-giving management to coordination of all volunteer activities. We are honored to introduce today’s FACE of Birmingham, Deborah Everson.
Tell us a bit about First Light.
First Light is an emergency shelter for homeless women and their families. We are a faith-based agency, founded on Gospel values but not a religious organization. Our mission is to create hospitality for homeless women and their children while providing supportive care that rebuilds dignity and hope for their futures. We partner with the women to seek opportunities that will lead to their independence.
We are not simply a meal and a bed. The focus of our service is delivered by the professionally certified social work staff who work directly with each guest to help her address the root causes of her homelessness.
Our programs include private sessions with a social worker, group sessions, life skills classes and learning to manage one’s medications using med-fill boxes. These are supplemented with activities led by community volunteers such as prayer services and bible studies, weekly therapeutic art classes, movie parties, holiday or seasonal activities, karaoke — anything that can lift spirits and help women regain self-awareness, self-respect and the drive to take charge of their lives with purpose.
What are some misconceptions folks might have about how these women end up at First Light?
I believe that many still hold to the stereotypical view that the homeless are street people who don’t want to work.
Our guests come from every walk of life and have varying levels of education from high school through achieving master’s and PhDs. They have been bank clerks, paralegals, hairstylists, teachers, nurses, waitresses, stay-at-home moms, hotel housekeepers, graphic artists … The truth is, they are a microcosm of the community-at-large.
When I talk with people about the guests, I put it bluntly: These women are us. Things like mental illness, addictions, poor choices, chronic physical illnesses, lack of education and opportunities, lack of affordable housing and joblessness in one’s community can all divert a person from living up to their full potential. But many of our guests have the same dreams you and I have. They deserve a second, third and, yes, maybe a fourth chance to find respite to heal and self-evaluate for a bit. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that many are fighting for their lives.
How can people get involved and support First Light?
We are looking for groups who can provide a meal for up to 70 women and children; women who will become overnight volunteers (You don’t stay up all night.); folks who can lead an activity of some kind that is fun, inspirational or educational; or groups who can do supply drives for the shelter or for women moving out. We are open to ideas!
What is most challenging about your work?
It’s the frustration that we cannot help every woman who needs us. We have to turn people away every day because we are full and there is nowhere to put people. There are 38 shelter beds on the second floor and we sleep 15 to 20 on mats on the floor, in what we call “overflow.” Our entire staff would agree that the pressing need is for more space. We would love to have more space for single adults and additional accommodations for families. That’s the dream.
I have the best job — hands down. I have the honor of encountering the guests we serve every day, and I make a point of this to keep me grounded. It can be so enlightening. I meet countless individuals who want to volunteer here or serve in some way. I train volunteers to spend the night, and I see donations coming in. No matter where I turn, I am witnessing profound goodness or broken lives being rebuilt. It’s humbling and amazing to witness the strength and the goodness of the human spirit.
There are people who have volunteered at First Light longer than I have worked here. I see people giving, not from their excess, but in spite of their own needs. I leave the shelter every day knowing that grace is alive and well here.
Tell us about Dancing With the Stars of The Magic City fundraiser?
Our Young Partners board started Dancing With the Stars of The Magic City a few years ago, and it has grown into something really fun and rewarding to all who participate. We invite people from the community who might be “stars” in their own circles to work with a local choreographer to create a short dance routine. They are competing to get “votes” (or dollars) from those who come to see their performance or want to support their effort, which raises funds for the shelter. We have had state representatives, journalists, former football stars, corporate attorneys, ad agency account reps and real estate agents as the “stars.”
What do you like to do when not working?
I love film and drama. Netflix, Acorn TV, BritBox and Prime Video have ruined me. Snuggling with my dogs, Sophie and Tucker, is a priority. In the fall, it’s all about college football — Roll Tide!
What is something that some people might be surprised to learn about you?
After I lived in Birmingham for a short time, I wanted to renew my faith life. I eventually entered Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman to become a Benedictine Sister, and went to Notre Dame for a summer to start a master’s in theology. I left the community later, but the sisters have remained my spiritual family. My spiritual rebirth was there in that beautiful chapel, under the stained-glass window depicting the Baptism of Jesus. I go back to see the sisters and Sister Lynn McKenzie, OSB, remains my dear friend.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Entering religious life — I gave up everything and pursued a vocation. While there are several reasons why I didn’t stay, I still feel that that time period represents the gutsy risk-taking that makes me who I am. You don’t know unless you try. It shaped and formed me in so many ways. My hope, my faith, my belief in people’s inherent goodness — this comes from my time as a Benedictine. I wouldn’t trade one moment of that time.
Any guilty pleasures?
I love a good vodka martini, slightly dirty.
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What is your best piece of advice?
Stop talking. Listen and learn.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
My dogs, laughter and a restful wake-up-and-you-don’t-know-what-day-it-is nap.
Thank you, Deborah! To learn more about First Light, visit firstlightshelter.org or their Facebook page. And don’t miss Dancing With the Stars of the Magic City on Thursday, October 10, 2019, at the Lyric Theatre.
And thanks to Eric & Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for today’s images of Deborah!
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