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Christy Atkinson believes that meaningful work is the key to a fulfilling life. As executive director of Workshops Empowerment Inc., she’s not only doing meaningful work but also helping others find rewarding jobs, too. In 1900, Workshops began as a rehabilitation program for people with disabilities, teaching them to create products for sale. In recent decades, Workshops, Inc. has focused on training people with disabilities and other employment barriers and providing solutions for local businesses — including assembly, mailing, and order fulfillment. Christy is honored to be at the helm of an organization with such a rich history and is excited about the future of Workshops Empowerment Inc. Get to know this inspiring FACE of Birmingham.

woman posing before a bookcase
“I do not do well doing a job that doesn’t serve others,” says Christy, who worked in public education for 30 years before transitioning to nonprofit work. Before Workshops Empowerment Inc., she was the executive director of MCTI (Mechanical Craft Training Institute). Image: Javacia Harris Bowser

For people who are unfamiliar with Workshops Empowerment Inc., can you briefly explain the work you do?

Workshops started 123 years ago. Back then, there weren’t the laws and regulations we have today. There were no protections for those who had disabilities. There was really no option for people facing barriers to employment. Workshops was one of the original programs to begin finding ways to employ those with disabilities and give them meaningful work.

Work is a powerful thing for humans. It gives us meaning. It gives us connection. It gives us autonomy. And it fights things that would otherwise overtake us — hopelessness and depression.

For 123 years, Workshops has been focused on serving those with disabilities. As time evolved, it also encompassed those with other barriers — things that might not technically be a disability but are huge barriers in the workforce, whether that be substance abuse, mental health issues, incarceration, or homelessness.

We provide a vocational assessment to ensure that someone is following what they are interested in doing, see their current capacity level, and figure out how we can build on that through job development. Then we get them ready to be placed in competitive employment in the community.

Tell us more about the products that program participants help make at Workshops Empowerment Inc.

WE Made is our newest program that we incorporated, and it is Southern staples with a purpose. We have our fire starters. We have our baking mixes —  a pancake mix, a hummingbird cake mix, cornbread, and biscuit mixes. And we have our room sprays and dog sprays and mosquito repellent. They’re all natural.

We are providing job training through the creation of the materials. We’re looking to grow that into further training by having an onsite café so people will be trained to prepare the baking mixes, and we will have training for food service for selling that already-made product.

How can people get involved?

They can always volunteer. We really need individuals who can come in and be business partners with us — to hire the individuals we’re training. And they can help us financially, whether that be through donations or the purchase of our WE Made products. They make excellent gifts.

You worked in public education for almost 30 years. What inspired the transition to nonprofit work?

After being in education, I wanted my footprint to be bigger. I wanted to be able to make the changes I felt would make a difference in the community and not focus only on one area. I think it takes education, wraparound services, community partnerships — it takes all of those things to really meet the needs of a community. Being a part of that through the nonprofit realm and working alongside other nonprofits shoulder-to-shoulder to knock down barriers and create differences that leave a legacy within the community is exciting.

woman posing before a wall of framed photographs
“When we talk about diversity, we usually think of race and ethnicity, but diversity includes those with disabilities and barriers,” Christy says. “Seeing how those individuals are so vital to the overall fabric of our society is really important.” Image: Javacia Harris Bowser

What motivates you to do the work that you do?

I grew up in Walker County, very rural, very poor. If it had not been for mentors and programs in my life, I would not have been able to be successful. I would not have been able to go to college and do the things that so many people often take for granted.

Who’s inspiring you right now?

This sounds like a canned answer, but it’s the individuals that I work with every day. They’re what give me the gas in my tank to keep going. Seeing some of the things they have to overcome and have struggled with over the years is fuel for me.

I will say one of the individuals who has really made a difference in how I see things is my daughter. She’s 17, and she’s the best of everything that I wish I could be. She is bold, empowered, and determined to make a difference, which gives me hope. A lot of times, people will be negative about younger generations. But I see them as viewing life through a totally different lens that’s often a great deal more honest than older generations. They’re willing to see others’ struggles and pain and embrace that.

What’s the best advice you have to offer?

Develop a personal vision and create positive self-talk around that. There will be days when you get lost in the chaos of life and work. But if you have that guiding vision and those positive things that you tell yourself, instead of all the garbage you could say — even if you don’t believe or feel it right at that moment — if you have that, it’s powerful. It gets you up the next morning and resets you.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I’m a voracious reader. We have a farm just outside Pell City, so I like spending time with our animals. I like gardening. I love traveling and spending time with my family — my husband Brent, daughter Kate, and son Jacob. And I love to draw. Sketching is really therapeutic. It’s a stress reliever, but it also inspires. When I get lost in drawing, sometimes it helps me solve other issues that happened during the day.

woman in office chair
While at the helm of Workshops Empowerment Inc., Christy plans to help shepherd renovations to the Workshops building, and she wants to expand the organization’s work with Birmingham City Schools. Image: Javacia Harris Bowser

What do you like to do with your family?

We are frequent flyers to Oak Mountain and Red Mountain Park. Red Mountain is great for an easy hike. Oak Mountain is where we go to kayak. We love Netflix binging, and we love to go out to eat.

What are some of your favorite restaurants?

The Southern Kitchen, El Barrio, Bamboo on 2nd, and Blue Sushi Sake Grill at the Summit. And I love the white chocolate bread pudding at Bellini’s.

Besides faith, family, and friends, name three things you couldn’t live without.

City Bowls Açai Powerhouse Bowl, pedicures, and Diet Coke.

Lightning round!

Last book you read: Start with Why by Simon Sinek.

Last big vacation? Glamping at Yellowstone.

Something people would be surprised to learn about you: I’ve been skydiving before, and I do have a few tattoos.

Favorite Birmingham gems: Alabama Theatre and Railroad Park.

What’s on your bedside table: My Bible and pictures of me with my family.

Favorite gift to give: Oh the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.


For more stories about inspirational women, visit our FACES archives!

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About the Author
Javacia Harris Bowser

Javacia is a freelance writer based in Birmingham and the founder of See Jane Write, a website and community for women who write and blog. Three things she can't live without are tacos, her Day Designer planner, and music by Beyonce.