Inside Track: Homeless summer moves McDermott

Guiding Light development director aims to help others who may be suffering in shame and silence like she was.
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Starla McDermott applied for the Guiding Light job three times before she was finally hired. Courtesy Betsy Michelle Photography

When Starla McDermott was newly divorced, working and saving up to rent an apartment, she and her three young children had nowhere to go, so for an entire summer, they lived in a tent on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Indiana.

On her ex-husband’s days with the children, she slept behind a church and showered at friends’ homes before going to work. During her days with her kids, she strove to make the “camping” situation feel like a fun summer activity instead of their only option.

McDermott looks back on that period in the 1990s and realizes there were organizations and social service programs that likely could have assisted her with housing, but a) she didn’t know about them, and b) she was so ashamed of her financial straits and frightened about losing custody that she kept her homelessness a secret from everyone in her life.

“At night, sometimes I would cry when (the children) didn’t see it, but I was so busy, and I was just doing the best that I could,” she said.

Now, as development director at Grand Rapids-based Guiding Light — a job that involves sharing success stories of clients and fundraising for the nonprofit that serves men experiencing homelessness and addiction — her personal mission is to make sure others know they don’t have to suffer in shame and silence, and that help is available to anyone who asks.

“I felt shame because I thought I was doing something wrong, and I did not want my ex-husband to know because I was afraid he’d take my kids away,” McDermott said. “So, I did not tell anybody. The only reason I started talking about it was (because) one of the gentlemen who was a client at Guiding Light flat-out asked me one time if I fully understood what it was like to be homeless. I could have just said, ‘Yeah,’ but I decided to sit down and listen to his story, and that’s when I first came to ever share that I actually had been homeless.”

The journey to where McDermott is today, working a job she loves and doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon, was not easy. After a stint as a preschool teacher when her daughter was little, she spent 17 years in corporate sales and marketing, excelling in the work but feeling unfulfilled.

STARLA MCDERMOTT
Organization:
Guiding Light
Position: Development Director
Age: 51
Birthplace: Clearlake, California
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Three children: Lindsey, Chase and Samuel
Business/Community Involvement: Former volunteer and board member for Zonta International, Grand Rapids chapter, until it disbanded two years ago.
Biggest Career Break: Went back to school in her 40s and did an internship at West Michigan Environmental Action Council that opened doors for her to build a career in the nonprofit sector.

After her ex-husband retired from the Navy, he got a job in northern Indiana, which is what first brought her to the Midwest. Long after they divorced, she continued working in sales in the natural food industry, rising through the ranks from sales rep to territory manager for Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Her final sales job brought her in 2007 to Grand Rapids, a city she promptly fell in love with. But she was exhausted by the stress of sales and the constant travel across the Midwest, so she sought advice from a career counselor about changing fields.

“I averaged about 40,000 miles a year on my car,” McDermott said. “I was gone two, three nights a week and also was a single mom, which was pretty rough, and I just got tired of it.”

In 2010, she took an aptitude assessment, and she and the career counselor agreed that her heart was in helping those less fortunate than herself in the Grand Rapids community. As a result, she decided to quit her job, go back to school and take a couple of classes in nonprofits from Grand Rapids Community College.

During that time, she was looking for internships and landed one at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), helping to organize the 2011 Grand River Water Festival for a $500 stipend, at the age of 41. From there, she was hired as a part-time events coordinator at WMEAC.

Needing a higher-paying, full-time job, McDermott went on to work a one-year contract as a field organizer at a sub-nonprofit of the League of Conservation Voters — Moms Clean Air Force — which was established to raise awareness among mothers about pollution in diverse, low-income neighborhoods.

That contract was up in late 2012, and from there, she did independent consulting on event planning, fund development, community engagement, project management and websites for nonprofits and a few for-profit organizations. In 2013, she went to work as development manager for special events at Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes, raising over $250,000 in revenue during her one-year, eight-month stint there.

McDermott felt the pull in 2015 to apply for a development coordinator role at Guiding Light not once, not twice, but three times. The third time was the charm, after Guiding Light’s first two choices for the role didn’t make it past their 90-day trial runs.

In February 2016, she started her position at Guiding Light as development coordinator, and after only a year, was promoted to development director.

“I don’t fully actually know (why I kept applying),” McDermott said. “I was scared to death, for one thing. I don’t know why I kept doing it, but it had all the pieces that I knew I could do well in the job description, and I said, ‘I can do this job. This is exactly what I need and want, full time.’ I enjoyed my work as an events coordinator, but I wanted to do a lot more, not just plan events, and all the little pieces, e-blasts and writing — I love to write; that’s one of my favorite hobbies — I mean, I applied for a whole bunch of other stuff, too, during that year, but (Guiding Light) scared me, and it was also exactly what I knew I would be really good at.”

Along the way, as she interviewed the men in the programs to tell their stories to donors and the community, she realized that besides the skills required for the job lining up with what she likes to do, the mission of Guiding Light and its ability to make a real difference for people experiencing homelessness is really what drew her in.

“We’re not a revolving door; this is long-term help that is sustainable,” McDermott said. “And when someone has gone through recovery and gotten back to work, they’re giving back to the community. Most all these men do some sort of volunteering; they volunteer with the men who are in the program to show an example, but they’re also spending money, they’re buying groceries — so they’re giving back to the community instead of getting handouts. So really, it’s a hand up versus a handout.”

Recently, Guiding Light started a podcast that allows men to tell their own stories, whether about the road to finishing their high school degree, getting into stable housing, finding long-term work, rebuilding their family lives or being baptized as new Christian believers.

When McDermott reflects on the reasons she believes she is called to this work, it all comes back to two words: shame and compassion. She said she held onto shame for far too long, and she is thankful that the men at Guiding Light, as they go through the programming, are encouraged to let go of that feeling. 

“Me being able to work through that shame has helped me be able to help these men tell their story better, so that I can portray that to a donor. Sometimes, donors don’t fully understand why someone can’t just get a job. There are always reasons in the background. You don’t know what happened in their life, just like anybody would not know what happened to me. Because I know that there’s a backstory to pretty much every single person in this world, I’m able to portray the stories of these men better,” she said.

“This is not just a job to me. … I do not see myself going anywhere anytime soon because I love what I do.”

Although she is very comfortable with the work she is doing at Guiding Light, McDermott said she is also pursuing a side project that will help women in the community who may be going through what she went through. She is looking to buy multi-unit housing on her own that would be affordable for single mother tenants — perhaps with the support of another nonprofit that has helping women as a mission.

“It could be that one step that they need as they work on finishing school or going to school or getting a better paying job that they can take care of themselves and not be homeless, but also (would be) a way to educate them and empower them,” she said.

“No one was there to empower me. And I think that for so many people, to empower them helps them make that one drastic change that they may need. … My goal is to start small and succeed at it first, then take the next step.”

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