The nonprofit sector is filled with dedicated people driven by a passion for strengthening their communities. For Margaret Morton, a temporary position became a 20-year calling to support families and workforce development.
In the mid-1990s, Morton was on the foundational team of the Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement, better known as SAFE.
“I was fortunate to be involved from the formative stages,” Morton said. “We assembled a group of community leaders to identify the challenges and opportunities in our area that ultimately led to SAFE being founded.”
Morton originally worked as an elementary guidance counselor at Sylacauga City Schools during the infancy of SAFE. She became the organization’s part-time executive director in 1998, sharing her time between SAFE and the school system. She soon transitioned to SAFE full time and has served as the executive director for 22 years.
SAFE is a nonprofit that provides meaningful opportunities for families, contributes to community growth statewide and promotes community cohesion. For more than 20 years, the organization has been committed to improving family life and empowering workforce development.
The organization runs a number of programs that help families be successful, including early intervention, after-school programs, a garden that focuses on farm-to-table meals, adult education, mental health programs and public health initiatives. Auburn University, the University of Alabama, Jacksonville State University and other universities partner with SAFE to conduct research on the success of its programs.
“We’re proud of the support we give our community, and we’ve grown so we’re now able to provide opportunities to communities in neighboring counties, like Coosa and Clay, across the state and even across the nation,” Morton said.
SAFE has positioned itself as the backbone for a wide range of collective impact work. A network of public and private interests sharing SAFE’s vision works to develop strategies and share responsibility in reaching its goals.
“It’s transformational work,” said Chris McCauley, former Markstein director and board member for the Alabama Network of Family Resource Centers. “As more communities embrace family resource centers and work to collectively help families and children, we will see a healthier, more prosperous Alabama emerge. We are fortunate that SAFE has established such a strong foundation to build upon.”
SAFE’s mission has expanded into a community incubator that connects partners and businesses, closes gaps, creates ideas and reaches solutions. SAFE’s success and growth would not have been possible without its partnership between public and private stakeholders. Support from organizations like the Alabama Power Foundation has increased SAFE’s ability to focus on rural Alabama and the unique needs of those communities, Morton said.
“Alabama Power was instrumental in convening leaders from across the state to learn from each other and invest in this work to build workforce capacity while investing in the sustainability of what already works,” Morton said. “We’ve been able to access resources we couldn’t before their involvement, and it’s been invaluable to have the best and the brightest at the table.”
The next milestone for SAFE is the planned East Alabama Rural Innovation and Training Center, which will provide a comprehensive approach to develop human capital, foster innovation, create jobs, leverage local resources and infrastructure, and expand community, county and regional engagement. The training center will provide organizations space to serve and collaborate, and will be equipped for current and future problems.
“The training center will give us the ability to take our vision, crystallize it and strategically allow us to take our work to the next level in the future,” Morton said. “It will also allow us to stay flexible and respond to needs as they occur. We don’t know where the next in-demand jobs will be, but our center will provide the space to train new employees with the skills they’ll need.”
The center was made possible through nonprofit, business and government support and funding.
Morton is grateful for the success SAFE has achieved during her tenure and is proud of the team of problem-solvers she’s helped establish.
“Being the executive director of SAFE was never part of my career path,” she said. “I never dreamed of this. It’s a God thing. I was happy being a guidance counselor, but being a part of the synergy this organization provides and the people we get to work with is an inspiration. Every day is a blessing.”