Selena Wilson was raised to care about those in need, but never came face-to-face with homelessness. The people she saw her social worker mother help while growing up did not resemble those she would see on her first job in the field.
It was 1995 when Wilson, then a College of Charleston student, drove to Crisis Ministries responding to a newspaper ad for a part-time job at the homeless shelter. The enormity of the need the organization was trying to address struck her as she looked for the building listed in the ad.
“I drove past and saw all these men out there and thought, ‘Yikes! I don’t know if I can do this,’ ” says Wilson, now chief program officer at the service agency. “I had never really seen homelessness.” She was hired for the job that required her to welcome clients and get them settled in.
“It was just before Christmas, and it was almost overwhelming to take it all in,” Wilson says.
Nineteen years later, she’s still working to help those who are homeless, hungry, addicted and sometimes mentally ill. In addition to her positions at Crisis Ministries, she has worked at the Charleston Mental Health Center and Columbia Area Mental Health.
She’s satisfied with the career choice she made, but there have been brief periods of doubt.
It would take an incident such as a mother walking away from the shelter and leaving her children there before Wilson wondered if Crisis Ministries was effective. The slaying of a client who did not follow one of Wilson’s suggestions would make her wonder whether she was cut out for the job.
“Sometimes I wish I could just swoop in (and make all of their troubles go away),” Wilson says. “But there is something to be gained from going through the process. If they have milestones along the way, they learn more about themselves and that there are other people who do want to help them.”
Wilson says she often gets through her days with the help of prayer.
“I was raised Catholic, and I pray a lot,” she says. “Sometimes I pray before I come to work because I never know what’s going to happen that day. And my grandmother always gives me prayers to say depending on what’s going on in my life.”
It sometimes appears that Wilson’s work is all consuming, but barring emergencies, she is able to separate her personal time from her work day, she says. Having a staff she can trust to ensure clients are safe and secure helps, she says.
“I have to be healthy for my son,” says Wilson, a single mother. “When the day is done, the day is done. I have really, really gotten very good at that in the last two years.”
She also has the support of a close-knit family.
“My parents cook every Sunday, and we (she and her sister) go over there. The whole family goes on vacation together.”
Wilson notes that when she joined a graduate chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority in 2005, she traveled to Columbus, Ohio, from Columbia, where she was living, each month to join her grandmother’s chapter.
“My grandmother pinned me,” Wilson says, adding how special that was. No matter how challenging life gets, she can depend on her grandmother to say, “Pray about it.” And the older woman is often ready to offer just the right prayer for the situation.
“Every year she sends me my new missalette. I travel with it. It’s in my car.”
There are two things Wilson wishes were different but that have not changed.
“I wish people could really understand this issue of homelessness and realize that some people don’t cause this themselves. I wish people could just accept people for who they are and all that they bring.”
Charysse Joseph of Atlanta grew up with Wilson in Connecticut and would have been surprised had she not pursued a career that involved helping people, she says. Joseph describes Wilson as always having been a caring person.
As a high school student, Wilson often collected clothing and food for the poor through churches and social organizations, Joseph says. But for Wilson, it was never just another opportunity to do a good deed, but a drive to help in a meaningful way.
“We often have the mentality that everybody is looking for a handout,” Joseph says. “She sees a person in need. Others would just brush that person off and hand them the money. She would take the time to converse with that person. She would see someone and stop and try to help the person out.
“I don’t think she gets enough credit for what she does,” Joseph says. “This is not a job one takes for the money. She gets enjoyment out of helping others. She could be a doctor or investment person and she’s choosing to do this. She was always in honors classes, and most people would have pegged her to do something else.”
Verdell Mack, front desk receptionist at Crisis Ministries, says Wilson also is concerned when her staff has difficulties and is sensitive to their needs.
Mack also says being in the same environment with Wilson inspires people to work harder. That and the fact that she is open to discussing any issue makes her well-suited to mentor, she says.
“She is a very intelligent young lady, and she has great leadership skills,” Mack says.
Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.