Stepping In As Ruth Ellis Interim: Margaret Warner

By Crystal A. Proxmire

DETROIT - In the mid-1960s Margaret Warner's parents sent her to a small, private women's college in the northern suburbs of Chicago where she diligently studied sociology, and refined the manners and social skills that her parents expected of a young woman raised in the era of "Mad Men." But it was trips to the south side of Chicago that had the most impact on the career path of the woman stepping in to serve as interim executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center.

"The interest of the school was to prepare you for the real world, and giving back was part of it," Warner said. "I volunteered as a tutor helping children from families in need. That exposure to social issues drove me to work in public and child welfare."

And that she certainly did. For over 44 years Warner worked in various locations for the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS), including taking the lead role as director in several counties including the Oakland, and as the Child Welfare Director for Wayne County DHS.

Though she retired from agency work last April, she could not resist coming back to manage Ruth Ellis Center when Laura Hughes announced she would be leaving the director position.

Warner connected with the Ruth Ellis Center several years ago when Hughes reached out to the DHS in her efforts to forge new partnerships for the organization. In her position as Child Welfare Director, Warner joined the then state director of MDHS for a tour of the house where otherwise homeless LGBT youth found shelter, food and care. The bond between the activists was instant and they began working together on two key projects.

The first was helping Ruth Ellis become licensed for the state's foster care program. Warner's department worked with Hughes and her staff to be in the position to apply for a contract that reimburses them for the care of the foster youth they serve at their residential facility. Ruth Ellis Center can now house up to five youth through their foster care program, in addition to the five young adults who can take advantage of their federally-supported transitional living program.

The other key collaboration came in the form of the LGBT Workgroup, which to this day brings key service providers to the table to address the needs of LGBT youth in the foster care system. Professionals from the Ruth Ellis Center, DHS, Detroit-Wayne County CMH and other private child-placing and mental health agencies have been developing strategic plans and setting goals for the foster care community to meet the needs of youth who identify as LGBTQ in foster care. They have also benefited from consultation and support from Casey Family Programs, part of the Casey Foundation network, who brought in out-of-state child welfare agencies, and national experts to collaborate and learn from the Ruth Ellis model.

Hughes' magnetism has kept Warner involved, and helped lure her into the interim director chair. "Laura has this unique ability to connect with any kind of group regardless of who they are. It could be agencies, foundation, community organizations or youth. She has this incredible ability to connect. The thing that always impressed me is her courage to just approach people. She was so committed to the vision and mission of this agency."

Warner is also impressed with the staff, the board, and the plethora of services the center offers. "We service not just foster care and transitional living needs, but our drop in center offers mental health services, HIV/AIDS testing, emergency services, food, housing referrals, clothing, and opportunities for LGBT youth to freely express themselves in an accepting environment and interact with other youth of similar interests and needs." In addition, questioning youth can come with their families or alone, and have a skilled professional help them sort out their concerns.

"I am very impressed by the staff, both professionals and paraprofessionals. There is a huge level of commitment, expertise and knowledge that exists here, and a very fine board. We have people from many professional fields and interests that bring their expertise; and they are hugely committed to sustaining and growing the Ruth Ellis Center."

Hughes left the agency at the beginning of the year, on good terms, to explore other professional opportunities. Warner is expected to serve as interim until about April. While fundraising is a constant concern for any nonprofit, Ruth Ellis Center remains stable and the board is conducting a nation-wide search to find a long-term leader.

In the meantime, services continue uninterrupted and the organization is preparing to launch its newest fundraising initiative, Ruth's Angels. Through Ruth's Angels, donors can provide reoccurring financial support each month to the organization. When the campaign launches later this month, they will be reaching out beyond their existing donor base and turning to people from throughout SE Michigan to raise awareness about the center and encourage people to support their work.

Then come April, Warner will finally be able to retire...or so she says. Over 44 years of dedicated service to youth in need may be a hard habit to break.

For more information on Ruth Ellis Center, visit their website at {UR L www.ruthelliscenter.org}.

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