In 1989, Andrea Ingram took a big cut in both pay and prestige to leave her job as director of Montgomery County's Crisis Center for a similar job in Howard County.
Twenty-five years later, neither she nor Howard County has regretted the decision.
Ingram was able to work in the county where she and her family lived, which allowed her to deepen her roots here and to be around more for her three young children, and to fight at a more elemental level for causes dear to her heart.
As for Howard County, it gained an experienced, dedicated hand who transformed its crisis services from minimal to first-rate, and along the way won a reputation as a fierce, effective advocate for the down and out.
At a reception at Howard Community College on Friday, Sept. 5, Ingram will be honored for her quarter-century of service as executive director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention, the nonprofit organization that includes the county's only homeless shelter and a variety of other services.
While no stranger to awards and honors – she was given the Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Award in 2003 and inducted into the Howard County Women's Hall of Fame in 2004, among other honors – Ingram is a bit wary of the to-do over her service.
"It's very sweet and it's very nice," she said in a recent interview in her Columbia office. "But I'm the middle of seven children, and middle children thrive by being in the background."
Nobody else who knows Ingram and her work is anything but elated with the recognition.
"Oh my gosh, yes," said Barbara Lawson, the former president and CEO of The Columbia Foundation, when asked if Ingram deserves the attention. "Andrea is respected statewide in terms of what she's done for the homeless in our community and the advocacy that she's provided.
"She's one of the best executive directors I've ever known," added Lawson, who works as a consultant for nonprofits. "She's a wonderful manager, compassionate, a gentle soul. … She's the perfect package for Grassroots. And she's grown it magnificently."
County Executive Ken Ulman, who grew up a few doors away from Ingram's family in Columbia and served on the Grassroots board in the early 2000s, called Ingram "a phenomenal public servant."
"Andrea Ingram is a fixture in Howard County, for so many reasons," Ulman said. "She can be counted on to always do the right thing. … She's been able to steer the Grassroots ship with a very steady hand for 25 years."
Third time's a charm
Ingram grew up in New Jersey but went to college at the University of Maryland, where she earned her bachelor's degree in special education and psychology and a master's in social work. After graduation, she went to work in 1978 as a crisis counselor in nearby Montgomery County.
"I loved it," she recalled. "I learned so much."
After six years, she was named a program manager and, a few years later, director of the Montgomery County Crisis Center.
It was a rewarding, well-paying job in a well-to-do county that offered Cadillac services. But after a few years, Ingram found herself looking at the want ads – mostly because she knew people looking for work – and saw an ad for the Grassroots job. She "made a note of it," she recalled, but did not apply.
Four months later, she saw the ad again, but again, just made a note of it. When she saw the ad a third time, however, she "felt like it was speaking to me," she said. "That sounds a little strange, I know, but I did."
She was already living in Howard County, and with all three of her children entering critical years in their schooling – one his senior year, another freshman year, the youngest first grade – the thought of working closer to home was appealing.
Ingram applied for the Grassroots job, was hired, and began work in 1989.
"It was a big change, from working for a limousine version of a crisis center in Montgomery County to coming here and working for a nonprofit," she recalled. "But the combination of feeling like I had a mission and working for my family … was appealing. So I jumped in."
The need for upgrading services here was apparent almost from the start, she said.
"In those early days, I looked around at Howard County and I kind of figured that sooner or later Howard County was going to need all of the things that Montgomery County had," she added. "Things like really professional crisis intervention services and a mobile crisis team."
One of her first jobs was to oversee the opening of Howard County's first homeless shelter, which opened three weeks after she began work here. While Ingram did not plan the 20-bed shelter, she knew how badly it was needed. That sense was proven correct when, as she put it, it became apparent "almost immediately that the shelter was not enough."
That realization kicked off a cascade of added and improved services for the county's homeless and those in crisis. Among the changes:
• In 2001, Grassroots and the county police department created a mobile crisis team, a group of mental health professionals and police officers that responds to traumatic events such as behavioral health-related emergencies. Last year, the team responded to 560 emergencies, and the county plans to start a second crisis team.
• In 2002, Grassroots and a group of Howard County congregations opened a cold weather shelter. Every winter, from late November until late March, the homeless shelter is held at a rotating group of county churches, where it typically houses 20-to-25 people.
• In 2008, a new shelter was built to replace the inadequate facility on Freetown Road, in Columbia, which also is Grassroots' headquarters. With 51 beds, the new shelter is not only bigger than its predecessor but it has the space and facilities to better serve its residents — a kitchen, for example, where meals are served daily.
• Also in 2008, Grassroots opened a day resource center for the homeless on Route 1, near Route 32. Open three days a week, the center includes a free medical clinic and offers clients such services as showers, meals, an address they can use and help with signing up for medical assistance.
• Over the past several years, Grassroots has focused more and more on suicide prevention, identifying and meeting with families that might be at-risk, starting a group for survivors of suicide (up to some 40 members), holding an annual suicide-prevention symposium and training both staffers and people in the community – hair stylists and bartenders, for example – to be on the lookout for potential suicides.
The additions and changes have dramatically expanded Grassroots' budget, which has grown from $450,000 to about $3 million during Ingram's tenure. Most comes from the county, the balance from state and private sources, including private fundraisers.
Ingram has presided over this growth with what observers describe as a calm, competent passion.
"It's amazing to watch her from behind the scenes," said county police Maj. Ellsworth Jones, head of the department's criminal investigations bureau. Jones, who has worked with Ingram for 25 years as a police officer and, since 2009, as a member of the Grassroots board, described Ingram as "a wonder."
"She's so compassionate for all the people that she serves," Jones said. "Her demeanor is so quiet and unassuming, but she's able to talk one-on-one with anybody that she meets with to get her point across.
"… She's so well-known and so well-respected by all the entities in this county, she has a good deal of influence in being able to help get the services the community needs."
Former Police Chief Bill McMahon, who worked with Ingram on numerous crisis-related issues and incidents, described her as "a great partner to work with."
While Howard County has plenty of resources and wealth, he said, it also has people in need, and Ingram was, and is, their champion.
"Andrea, for me, is kind of like the patron saint of the forgotten in Howard County," McMahon said. "I think her whole career and whole life has been geared toward people living on the fringes and left out. … She's been a lifeline to those folks."
Ulman cited the "dramatic, positive changes at Grassroots" in the past 25 years and called them "a tribute to Andrea's leadership."
He ticked off a list of Ingram's achievements as head of Grassroots – an improved hotline, larger shelter — but, recalling a time when she prodded him to visit the homeless to heighten his awareness of the problem, said he knows she is not satisfied.
"She would be the first to remind me that there is still work to do," he said.
No plans to retire
Indeed, Ingram herself ticks off a list of improvements she hopes to make, a list topped by devising more creative ways to provide housing to the homeless.
Asked how much longer she expects to be around to spearhead such efforts, Ingram, who declined to reveal her age, said she was not sure.
"One thing I can tell you about someone who does crisis work, we tend not to be real long-term planners," she said. "I guess I'll keep doing this for as long as I need to. As long as it works, as long as I'm useful. Although I do want to squeeze some fun in here and there."
To that end, after her mother died recently (Ingram and her husband cared for her at the end), she started taking horseback riding lessons, and has already taken a couple of long trips on horseback. She also has children in California and Atlanta to visit, as well as siblings "all over the country and in Canada."
"I don't have a plan or a date" to retire, she said. "The best I can say is I hope I'm not working in five years."
While she still has a wish list for her job, the self-effacing Ingram is able to look back on her first 25 years with some sense of accomplishment.
"I wanted to have an impact on my community," Ingram said. "I guess I've done that."