Give Me Shelter

Theodore Henderson was an unlikely candidate for the executive director’s job at The Ross Center, a day shelter and organization that serves people who are hungry, lonely, or homeless 365 days a year.

Theo had grown up in a home with six siblings, and his parents barely made enough money to keep their family clothed and fed. Theo’s father was very critical of him, always telling Theo he wasn’t smart or strong and didn’t work hard enough. As a result, Theo was very driven, always trying to prove himself. He would rarely ask for help or support from his parents, his teachers, or any other authority figure.

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When Theo became a single dad at 17, his parents told him he had to move out. Theo worked odd jobs to support himself and his very young son, and the pair spent more than one occasion living in a homeless shelter. Through sheer determination, Theo was able to earn a GED and enrolled part-time in community college.

It took him five years, but Theo graduated with an associate’s degree in education. After he graduated, however, he became discouraged, knowing he needed a bachelor’s degree to become a teacher but he couldn’t afford more college. A classmate told him about The Ross Center, a day shelter and organization that was looking for someone to fill its new volunteer coordinator position. The Ross Center served up to 300 people each day, providing them with breakfast and lunch, laundry and shower facilities, and assistance in accessing social services, and its volunteer coordinator would not only recruit and manage volunteers, but also train them. The classmate suggested that with Theo’s education background, he might be a good fit.

When Theo interviewed for the job, the CEO asked him what he would do first as the volunteer coordinator. He recalled his own time being homeless and said, “As these folks who come here go about their day out on the streets, no one looks them in the eye or says hi to them. When they come here, every volunteer and staff member should do just that. They have to believe that anybody that walks through these doors is an important, lovable human being, and treat them that way.” He was hired.

Theo thrived in the job. He had a lot of autonomy, developing and implementing his own plans and procedures for volunteer recruitment and training. He especially liked sharing his own “street” experiences with volunteers. The job required a lot of organization, matching volunteers with the needs of the organization and making sure all positions were staffed, but Theo quickly built a successful program and was well liked by volunteers and staff, many of whom admired his ability to get things done.

After a year, Linda (director of The Ross Center) told Theo to find and train his replacement because she wanted him to become the operations manager and oversee the shelter’s day-to-day operations. At first he balked and said, “I can’t do that. How am I going to run the facility and do human resource stuff?” he asked. She responded, “You have been doing it. You got this.”

But Theo found the operations job very difficult. He did a lot of what he called “band-aiding”—doing whatever needed to be done in various departments to keep the building going. As a result, Theo found himself torn in many directions. When Linda found Theo on a ladder, tool in hand, trying to repair one of the refrigerators’ compressors, she asked him, “Theo, is this the best use of your time? Isn’t there someone else whose job this is?” At the same time, staff members complained because they felt like he was too busy to hear their concerns and suggestions for improvements. In addition, Theo’s son was having problems in school, and Theo would need to leave in the middle of the day to pick him up, which he felt put him further behind at work. Despite all the hours and hard work, Theo thought he was failing. He told Linda he needed to find a new job.

Recognizing Theo’s concerns, Linda thought maybe he was better suited for a different type of supervisory position. So when the organization’s board of directors determined that it was time for The Ross Center to expand and build a new facility, Linda told Theo she had a new job for him: She wanted him to take a leave of absence from the operations job to oversee the effort to build a new facility. The job would require leading groups of people—committees, contractors, fund-raisers, city leaders—to design and build the best possible day shelter. There was no way for one single human being to do it all and make all the decisions; Theo would have to engage in strategic planning and learn to lead others to accomplish the goals.

Although grateful for the opportunity, Theo didn’t believe he was qualified or deserved it. “Theo, you have to learn to lead people, not do their work for them,” Linda told him. “Being a leader isn’t about doing, it’s about facilitating others to achieve objectives and goals. Your job will be to lead others in making the decisions to create a building that meets all our needs.”

Theo rose to the challenge. He started by listening, meeting with staff, volunteers, and clients to engage in brainstorming sessions to determine what amenities the shelter needed. He then established several committees to oversee the budgeting, site selection, and fund-raising for the new building. Theo even put together a team of regular clients and volunteers to assist in picking out everything from paint colors to shower tile for the new building. It was through this team that Theo learned that the building needed taller toilets for clients with mobility issues and shorter toilets to accommodate children for the family bathrooms. “I didn’t know you could have a three-hour meeting about toilets, but we did,” he said, laughing.

When committee or team members developed conflicts or encountered obstacles, Theo resisted his inclination to just go ahead and tell the committees what to do; instead, he let them work to find resolution, and mediated when the groups couldn’t reach consensus. As the project progressed, Theo did become a key decision maker as contractors, city planners, and vendors required answers that would take too long to reach in a committee. Theo found it a delicate balancing act of being in charge and letting others be in charge.

After the new building opened, Theo went back to being the facility’s operations director. Instead of being nervous, Theo approached the job with new confidence. “I have always felt I needed to control things,” he admits. “But in working on the new building, I had to learn to give up that control to lead others. It was hard, but it wasn’t going to happen otherwise. I see it’s the same in the day-to-day operations of the shelter.”

Two years later, Theo’s boss announced at a board meeting that she would be retiring. The board suggested that it might take a year to do a search to find her replacement, but she shook her head. “You have the perfect person already in place. He knows the organization inside and out, he’s committed to the mission, and he has the respect of the staff, volunteers, and clients.”

When she told Theo that the board wanted him to apply to be the CEO, he was stunned, but this time he didn’t argue. He nodded. “I’m ready,” he said.

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