Andrea Ingram has led Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center for 27 years with a central, guiding principle: Our lives are the product of an "accident of birth for which we are not responsible, for which we can take no credit and for which we are not born deserving."
Those born into good fortune have a "human obligation" to help the less fortunate, she said.
Ingram, who plans to retire early next year from the county's only 24-hour crisis intervention center and homeless shelter, has led her life implementing that philosophy.
Born to a Catholic family in northern New Jersey, Ingram said her parents were living examples of helping others, even though their careers were not in social work or human service. Her father worked in accounting at General Foods and her mother, whom she called "a great listener," was a homemaker who had narcolepsy.
Growing up, annual trips to Georgia at the cusp of the civil rights era exposed her to the stark contrast between fortunate and less fortunate, Ingram said.
"Quite honestly, driving down... in those days, we saw such poverty and black families living in huts," Ingram said. "The example was there with my parents. You didn't have to preach it if you're watching it happen."
Ingram carried this principle in her work. In the late 1970s, she graduated from the University of Maryland with a masters in social work after being drawn to the struggles of families when she worked at University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
She took a large pay cut when she left her job as director of the Montgomery County Crisis Center.
Finding Grassroots was almost "her calling," Ingram said. She had seen the job posting three times as she combed advertisements to find jobs for others. She decided to apply — she was already living in the county and all three of her children were entering critical years of their education.
Coming close to home made sense, she said.
When she retires after the organization finds an executive director to take her place, Ingram said she hopes to spend more time with her family.
Her legacy, Grassroots Board President Mary Lask said, is "leaving behind an efficient and effective organization, a well-trained staff and hundreds of volunteers and donors."
Throughout her career, Ingram was recognized for her service with awards like the Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Award, which she received in 2003, and she was inducted into the Howard County Women's Hall of Fame in 2004.
Known for humble demeanor, Ingram prefers to avert the attention she has received. She hopes she is remembered not by what she did, but how she did it.
"It's the way you do things and the way you treat people that counts," Ingram said. "What you do almost matters less than how you do it."
Ingram oversaw the opening of the county's first homeless center three weeks after she joined Grassroots. Over the years, the center has expanded with deeper roots in the community, broader services and a larger budget.
In 2001, the nonprofit created a mobile crisis team, a group of mental health professional and police officers, to respond immediately to behavioral health emergencies. The organization opened other centers and institutions to help the homeless on Route 1 in 2008 and set up a cold weather shelter with Howard County faith congregations in 2002. Its services have expanded a focus on suicide prevention and mental health issues.
"If someone comes here, we're not necessarily going to be able to solve everyone else's problems, but if we try and we treat people with kindness, that is going to be a positive experience," Ingram said.
Looking forward, Ingram hopes to see a comprehensive commitment on a local and national level to end homelessness. The first step is acknowledging that "homelessness is unacceptable, just like child abuse is unacceptable," she said.
The county adopted a plan to end homelessness in 2010. Nonprofits in the county do not compete to provide similar services, they collaborate to provide better resources, Ingram said.
Still, the needs of the county's homeless population are changing. In recent years, the county has seen more individuals struggling with medical issues and since the economic downturn in 2008, many continue to seek help, including priests, nurses and a high-level government official, she said.
"It's one thing to have a plan and it's another thing to make it happen," Ingram said. "That is a broader social issue. It's not just a Howard County issue. It's a civil rights issue. It's a national issue."
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For more information on Grassroots' search for a new executive director, go to grassrootscrisis.org/about-us/employment.