“The people around me helped build me into the person I am today. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Fresh out of college, Towanda wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted her career to look like. She graduated with a bachelor's in psychology from Tuskegee University in 1996 but didn’t have her compass set with any direction yet. That was, until Thelma Vines and Vivian Echols (two long-time employees of East Alabama Mental Health Center [EAMHC]) encouraged her to apply for a job at EAMHC. “I filled out the application on Tuesday and I was interviewed that Friday,” she said. Before she knew it, she was working in the mental health realm.
Her first position was Program Manager in the Dual Diagnosis Group Home with Residential Intellectual Disabilities. “I’d work at the group home during the day and by night, I attended Troy State University to obtain my master’s degree.” In fact, it was also a pivotal moment in her life. Not only had she started a lifelong career, but she started it with her best friend Tanya Stanley-Smutherman. “We were just in there, learning it all together,” she said. Some of her fondest memories of EAMHC were at that group home and being able to work with her best friend.
On top of having that valuable friendship connection at her job, she met her husband, Neal, at that first job too. “He helped me find my way through that group home,” Towanda reminisced, “and now he always keeps me going with encouraging words. That’s my best friend!”
She became Clinical Coordinator at Parkway Supported Housing and was then asked to run group homes on the Mental Illness Residential side in 1999. “Soon enough I was running the Mental Illness Residential side,” she said. She’s been at her current position of Mental Illness Residential Services Director for two years. “This job is probably the thing I’m most proud of,” Towanda said, “I was so honored that Selena Samford (her predecessor) thought of me for this position. I’m honored to sit in this seat.”
Towanda’s passion for this role extends past just her goals but is more focused on serving others. “Being able to provide a service and positive opportunities and life changing support is, to me,” she said, “the best part of this job.” The job isn’t without its challenges, though. “Multitask, multitask, multitask,” she said. “Then multitask some more.” As she has progressed in her career, matters have only become more complex. The services she directs can only be offered if there’s a competent team to help her make it happen and Towanda says she has the best one.
“You can only do one thing at a time, but my group home staffs’ support is key," she said. “Their support is what keeps me and the programs going. They were a vital part of me getting here to where I am now.”
With her long career in mental health service, Towanda had a piece of advice for anyone just starting out: “Have compassion, be caring and have a good work ethic. Try to be of good service to consumers.”
If there’s anything we could all learn from Towanda, it’s unwavering support and commitment.
Towanda is currently the MI Residential Services Director. She supervises residential care homes that are community-based programs for individuals without residential care that would be at risk for psychiatric hospitalization and or institutionalization because of serious mental illness. We thank her for 27 years of dedicated service!