Crisis Ministries doesn't look like much. Driving into downtown Charleston on Meeting Street, most commuters only see the squat brick building that houses the men's shelter and soup kitchen, a former Piggly Wiggly warehouse that was not originally designed to house human beings.
But don't let appearances fool you: Crisis Ministries is a modernized shelter, operating not just as a stopgap for hard times, but as a place where folks can begin putting their lives back in order. In the mint-green warehouse and two additional buildings that have been added since its founding in 1984, the shelter offers GED classes, health screenings, flu vaccinations, legal counsel, rapid rehousing services, and one-on-one case management.
Selena Wilson, the chief program officer at Crisis Ministries, started working as a part-time member of the front-line staff around 1997 while studying sociology at the College of Charleston. Although she was the daughter of a social worker, she saw things that caught her off-guard in the shelter's clientele, and it wasn't just the extreme poverty or the substance abuse, but their stories. She remembers one man in particular who had worked as a lawyer until his deteriorating mental health wrecked his relationship with his family and sent him into a tailspin.
"We've had other people who have been teachers, who have been really successful business owners," Wilson says. "Things happen."
In its 28-year existence, Crisis Ministries reports having sheltered 37,500 people and having helped more than 6,250 of them become self-sufficient. Wilson says the average stay in the shelter is just over 100 days.
Amy Zeigler, Crisis Ministries' director of grants and community outreach, recalls one of the shelter's success stories. After getting out of the shelter, a client with multiple disabilities spent seven years taking adult education classes at Crisis Ministries until he earned his GED. "I almost cried," Zeigler says.
The building that houses the adult education classes and computer lab is fairly modernized, but Zeigler says the facilities generally leave something to be desired. "It doesn't really provide a very nurturing environment when you're talking about people who've lived in really bad places," she says.
Currently, Crisis Ministries is trying to raise $7.5 million to build a new LEED-certified structure out back on land that the shelter recently acquired. It will have more beds, more space, and a lot more windows than the current complex of buildings. So far, they have raised about $5.4 million. So if you happen to have a couple million dollars sitting around, there are certainly worse ways you could spend it.
If you're not able to make a donation, Crisis Ministries can always use volunteers, although certain jobs now require people to sign up months in advance. "We're a hot commodity," Wilson jokes. Meanwhile, Zeigler says the shelter is currently looking for volunteers to serve and donate lunch in the family center on weekends.
Currently, children staying at the shelter have to go through the general soup kitchen line with the men, a situation Zeigler describes as "not ideal." There are also openings for serving breakfast, but bear in mind that prep time begins at 6 a.m.
In the years since 1997, Wilson has left Crisis Ministries several times to pursue other jobs, but she keeps coming back. "I mean, it's just good to be part of an organization that is well respected and thought of in the community," Wilson says. "I think anybody would want to be a part of that."