Pratt Paterson with Wilmer Hall

Pratt Paterson with Wilmer Hall

Our guest this week is the Executive Director of Wilmer Hall: Pratt Paterson. Pratt is from Mobile, AL and moved away for a few decades while in school and working at various non-profit organizations. Now that's he back home he helps Wilmer Hall serve children and young adults through several on-campus programs that provide tutoring, on-campus living and other tools needed to succeed.


Pratt: My name is Pratt Paterson and I'm with Wilmer Hall.

Marcus: Well, welcome to the podcast, Pratt.

Pratt: Thank you.

Marcus: So, it's cool that we're getting a chance to sit down because we've known each other for a couple of years and I'm excited about getting to know a little bit more about the story of who you are, and I know that you've just recently taken over Wilmer Hall as the ... Is your title Executive Director, or?

Pratt: Executive Director, yeah.

Marcus: Executive Director, so. So, we'll get into that a little bit, but before we get too far down that path, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and who you are, and where you grew up, and all that stuff.

Pratt: Well, I grew up here, but have not lived here as an adult. Went off to the University of Alabama at age 18, and then after a little bit of time in Birmingham, lived in Sewanee, Tennessee for about 15 years before moving back last summer.

Marcus: Very good.

Pratt: I've worked in the nonprofit world since 1999. In fact, I've never worked for a for-profit business.

Marcus: I did not know that.

Pratt: And, here I am.

Marcus: Yeah, that's cool. So, has it always been in the same ... because I know you ... Your original title had something to do with-

Pratt: I started as the Director of Development, which is, in education and nonprofits, a term for fundraising-

Marcus: Right, yeah. I was trying to come up with a nice way of saying-

Pratt: Right.

Marcus: A biz-dev kind of guy for non-profits, but ... Yeah.

Pratt: I did not start in administration, I started in summer camps and youth ministry, and then moved to education for the last 10 years or so, everywhere that I've worked has been residential in nature, which is a unique set of experiences that worked out to make, I think, me a better fit for Wilmer Hall.

Marcus: Yeah. But going back to your story, you went to Alabama.

Pratt: I did.

Marcus: And, did you study-

Pratt: History and English.

Marcus: I was going to say, what does one study that they end up at a lifetime of non-profit work?

Pratt: Well, I think any time you are with people, both people that you're serving and people that are possible supporters, it's really all about communication.

Marcus: Right.

Pratt: So, studying the liberal arts helped me primarily because it allowed me to be able communicate better.

Marcus: Right. Yeah. And also, I would imagine, you ... Did you have some experience with volunteering and serving, and stuff like that beforehand?

Pratt: Well my first job, as a 20 or 21 year old was working at a summer camp, so I was being paid, but not very much.

Marcus: Free meals.

Pratt: So it's always been service based. Even though, it's usually been how I earn my daily bread also.

Marcus: Yeah, so you mentioned that you went to high school here locally.

Pratt: I did. UMS-Wright.

Marcus: Very good, and I know that there's a lot of people that are listening that are giving the old fist pump right now, so-

Pratt: Well, my children go to St. Paul's, so I'm staying neutral.

Marcus: Yeah, staying neutral. No, it's been interesting that he's not being from this area, that even the high schools have a very clear following. I thought it was bad enough with Auburn and Alabama, which I will just, full disclosure, don't have allegiance to either one, but yeah, even the high schools down here, it's pretty hardcore.

You mentioned you got started by serving on the summer camps and things of that nature, but can you go back to your first point where you just ... It was either a life that was changed, or there was some reason why you made a decision to go down this path. I mean, what was around that decision?

Pratt: Really my formative experience and my wife's, I think, going to summer camp when we were children. And, when I was in college, I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I really just sat up one morning and said, "I want to go work at camp." Because that was, again, formative and transformative to us, so that's what started it. I wish I had a more thoughtful description, but I really sat up one morning, right when I woke up-

Marcus: It was just your own personal experiences of what that meant.

Pratt: And then, it was more hands-on, at that point, and when I was first in education and then I moved into administration, and all non-profits and businesses look at their mission periodically to make sure what their mission is what they want it to be, make sure they're carrying out their mission, how they want to be carrying it out, and with no offense to small private educational institutions, if we're talking about raising money and we're talking about living out the mission, I wanted to come back down here and work at Wilmer Hall, because the mission is so pure and so clear and what I wanted to get back to.

Marcus: So what is that mission?

Pratt: Wilmer Hall started in 1864 as a home for orphans and widows. We don't have any widows now, but our mission the whole time was to serve young people that need a leg up to live up to their fullest potential and become independent and successful members of our communities. That has taken a number of different forms since 1864, but we do that through five programs.

We have our residential program, which is minors who are often abused or neglected, some kind of combination of the two, or homeless that come and live with us. Our transitional living program, which is for young adults 18 - 22, and we have education specialists and social workers that help them go to school or get a job that allows them to live in a sustainable way.

The goal is for them to be independent and successful within two years. We have additional programs that focus on job skills, life skills, parenting, nutrition, anything that you could think of that many of us learned when we were growing up, that a lot of our young people haven't had that opportunity.

Our transitional family program, which is a similar program, but for young single mothers who have been homeless. It allows them to stay with their children and keep that family together. There a lot of places that serve women and a lot of places that serve children, there aren't as many places that will keep that family together and we do that.

Marcus: Which is a shame.

Pratt: It is. It is. We feel like that's very important. Often times, it's single mothers, sometimes they have been separated, sometimes, the mothers have been sleeping in their car with their small children, really some heartbreaking stories. So we're trying to break that cycle.

Those are our three residential programs, our other two programs are education-based. We have one focused at Wilmer Hall in Mobile County. The graduation rate is something we need to work on. We're happy to say that in the last 10 years, we have a 100% graduation rate and so, we've taken the show on the road, so to speak, and opened a new community-based education center in the Maysville community. And, we're gonna open two more in the next two years. So by 2019, we'll be running seven programs in four different facilities.

We serve about 65 or 70 young people right now, and by 2019, that'll be 150.

Marcus: Which is phenomenal, and part of the reason why I wanted to have you on here is to exhort you of the work that you all are doing. We don't talk that often. You are a client. Full disclosure to everybody that's listening to this-

Pratt: Sure.

Marcus: but being on the podcast ... I also want to say being on the podcast, it's not a requirement that you're a client, so not everybody that comes on here ... I usually identify when they are. So, we get that question a lot.

But, I think the work that you all are doing is just absolutely phenomenal. I think there's ... You mentioned before we started that the graduation rate when someone is tracked from freshman year, is really only 64, you said 64%-

Pratt: 64% and that was ... The last full set of data I have are from 2015.

Marcus: Right.

Pratt: In 2015, the statistic was for freshman starting, 64% would graduate. Of current seniors, 82% graduate.

Marcus: So, I know Mayor Stimpson would ... I know that he doesn't have a whole lot of control over the school system, because that's a county-based-

Pratt: Sure.

Marcus: Program, but he would love to see some changes take place there, because he recognizes the problems that are going, but the cool thing about what you're doing though, is that you say, "I don't care what the government is doing, there's a place here for someone who actually cares to come in and impact lives even if it's not all of them, we're gonna do what we can in order to put kids in a place where they're gonna be able to learn and move forward in society and change as many lives as we possibly can," and I know we were talking ... I definitely need to get you in touch with Grant and some of the other guys at the fuseproject, because your mission lines up with what they want. There is a lot of work to be done in this area, as far as education goes-

Pratt: Sure.

Marcus: And just kudos to you all for biting it off, because I know it's not an easy thing to do.

Pratt: It's not and to be clear, there's a lot of need for shelters. There is need for adjudicated young people, young people that are using drugs and alcohol. We need to try to help all of those people pull themselves up, but Wilmer Hall is none of those things.

We're a capacity-building organization, we work with young people who have not had any resources that they can use to become successful. Our goal is to build their capacity to do that and break the cycle, so that everybody following is able to do that also.

And, education is always a part of that. And education, can look like a lot of things.

Marcus: Sure. Education isn't just math skills or English skills-

Pratt: Right. You've gotta learn-

Marcus: It's also how to dress, how to approach people, how to interview for a job, how to ... All the life skills that a lot of individuals learn. There are large segments of our society that they don't get those skill sets and then it's just a turmoil of low-paying jobs and bad things that happen-

Pratt: Right.

Marcus: I mean, it's just not a good place.

Pratt: We cover everything from getting a driver's license to how to shop at the grocery store.

Marcus: Yeah, that's wild. So you all have been very successful, I would say. So, what do you attribute some of that success to?

Pratt: Well, they say it takes a village, which is really over-used, but we have a lot more people supporting us and a lot more volunteers than we have paid staff. Wilmer Hall is owned by the Episcopal Church and about 10 years ago, we broke our relationship with the state as programs through the state for young people changed. Focus was put on foster care and our relationship with the state was not in the best interest of the young people we were serving.

We receive referrals and funding from the state, and when you do that, unfortunately-

Marcus: You have to abide by the rules.

Pratt: It comes with all of the nightmare layers of bureaucracy that you would expect. We have a staff of 15. When the state was involved, we had a staff of 82. They were all being paid too much, and not many more young people than we're serving now.

Marcus: Wait a second. Did you say you went from 80 people to 15?

Pratt: We did, and they were serving not many more than we're serving now. Triple the budget, but it was all going out the window.

Marcus: That is absolutely insane.

Pratt: So, the bishop and the board and everybody else about 10 years ago decided to break that relationship and we went out on our own, so to speak, and it was really a leap of faith.

So, that decision set us up to be where we are and the hard and smart work of my predecessor, Sally Green, and also our COO George Regal, who's also an Episcopal priest. Their leadership, the last 10 or 12 years, has really been important, the support of the community has really been important. I really think our age is important. We've been doing this since 1864-

Marcus: Sure.

Pratt: When Bishop Wilmer founded it, he was the second Episcopal bishop of Alabama and again, I'll hold up our clear and, I think, pure mission also, we're helping people meet their basic human needs.

Marcus: Now, if you were talking to a business owner or maybe ... You know what? I'll say this too. If you were talking to someone who wanted to start a business or start a nonprofit, or maybe they were just getting started in those, what is the one bit of advice that you would give that person?

Pratt: Well, I would tell them, in a nice way. That they don't know it all, and I don't know it all.

Marcus: Sure.

Pratt: So, it's so important to learn from other organizations. Nonprofits can learn from for-profit businesses, for-profit businesses can learn from non-profits. Look at the ones that stand out and see what makes them stand out.

Marcus: And mimic that, but with your own voice? I guess.

Pratt: Yeah. Don't copy anybody, I would say-

Marcus: Right.

Pratt: But, you can-

Marcus: You have to own it.

Pratt: Certainly learn from others. People get themselves in trouble when they think they know exactly how to do something, I think.

Marcus: Now, one of the questions that we like to ask is, what are the last two books or resources that you've helpful? Do you have anything that you can point to in the last, say, six months or a year, that has been helpful to you?

Pratt: Sure. One that I love ... I like to read, although, I will admit I usually read murder mysteries and other mystery fiction. That does not guide Wilmer Hall in any way, but one that I turn to ... There's a fascinating character ... I used to work at St. Andrew's Sewanee School, which is a day and boarding school in Tennessee, and my wife did too. And we lived on the campus of the school for 14 years, and we lived in a wonderful historic home that was first occupied by a man named Father Flye. He taught at the school from 1917 - 1954, he was Episcopal priest and teacher and scholar.

He was, notably, the mentor and favorite teacher of the writer James Agee, but I loved to read about Father Flye in the things he's published. I'll admit, Marcus did give me a heads up that he was going to ask me that question, so I did make a note and I'd like to read a short quotation from Father Flye, and then follow-up with a philosophy that I think is important at Wilmer Hall, and places like Wilmer Hall.

Marcus: Please, yeah.

Pratt: It's about childhood and education. He wrote it in 1932, but it certainly applies to what Wilmer Hall and other organizations are doing in 2017.

"Childhood years are life in a very lovely aspect of it. In a true scheme of education, while preparing us for the future will, at the same time, make the present as rich and happy as possible. Childhood is not just a preparation for life. Preparation for what? What is the age conceived of as being really of importance, so that childhood is significant only as a preparation for it?

Why not say that perhaps the intrinsically worthwhile age is childhood. That possibly nature permits the human race to exist, not so that there may be adults, but so that there may be children."

I love that, and I read it several times a year, and one thing that I like to hold up about Wilmer Hall is that it's a happy place, and it's a home. The people that come to us have often not been in happy places, but it's a happy place. Of course, we're preparing young people to be independent and successful, so businesses, communities like that, because ultimately it leads to the strengthening, the economic strengthening of our community.

At the same time, it's really important for these young people to be there and have a good life. It's not just a factory to turn out workers, skilled workers.

Marcus: Right.

Pratt: It's also a happy place for children who are in a very important part of their life, that is not just a preparation for something else.

Marcus: You are ... First of all, you're speaking to my heart, but you're also speaking to my Libertarian leanings, because you're talking about stripping away government, getting rid of bureaucracy, being able to slim down an organization. Do more with less money, but also the purpose of what you're doing and the care and love and the emphasis that you're placing on children just being allowed to be a child.

It's just phenomenal. I just ... I love that.

Pratt: Thank you.

Marcus: I wish there was some way that you guys could do more. So, I don't know ... Normally we talk about this towards the end, but I'm gonna stop now and just say, is there some way that if somebody's listening to this, that if they want to be a part, whether it's volunteering or giving money or donations or ... How can people help you in your missions?

Pratt: Sure. Because of the often private and confidential nature of our work, we don't have a lot of volunteer opportunities with our young people. Like I said, our staff went from 82 to, I think we're at 15 now.

Marcus: Yeah.

Pratt: With the two young ladies you just met. And, most of our volunteer opportunities are on the grounds. We're always looking for groups to adopt spaces on our grounds, that's landscaping, painting, whatever they need. But really, our primary need is monetary donations. We have two big fundraisers every year, our next one is our Regions Mother/Son Field Day, that's on October 8th.

And then our one in the Spring is our Pancake Supper, but we don't collect any fees from anybody, of course. We get funding from the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, we get some funding from the United Way that we usually can count on, and we are fortunate enough to have an endowment. But once we receive the funding that we receive from those three sources, we still have to raise $900,000 a year in unrestricted donations.

Marcus: Right.

Pratt: Of course, like I said, we don't collect any fees. There are no fees to collect from the people that we serve.

So, monetary donations are our biggest need.

Marcus: Very good. So, if you're listening to this and if you're feeling so moved ... You know, I normally don't do this ... We have a lot of people that do ... I mean, the whole reason why we started this is because there are a lot of really good people doing a lot of good things in this area, but, in this case, it's kids.

For whatever reason, that strikes my heart. So if somebody's listening to this and you're feeling moved, please go to You can connect with Pratt there or contact the office and find out more information, so-

Pratt: We love to come talk to groups, civil or church, or educational groups, and give tours to groups, business groups, whomever, of our campus.

Marcus: So, what do you like ... I know we're kinda ... There's no way to go back into this, but going back into the questions. What do like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies? Besides watching Alabama on-

Pratt: I do like to watch Alabama. I like to garden. I like to run. I like to play with my three dogs. Our children are involved in a lot of sports activities and school activities, and of course, I like to spend with them and watch them.

Marcus: Keep you busy, yeah.

Pratt: Have fun also, but when I'm alone, I like to garden and run, and I read a lot of books. My wife and I like to cook and we like to go out to dinner. Eating is one our favorite pastimes.

Marcus: Very cool. What's your favorite ... I asked somebody this earlier, what's your favorite restaurant? Where do you like to go?

Pratt: Well, that's tough. I'm surrounded by good restaurants.

Marcus: Who do I not offend?

Pratt: Yeah, I heard [Satio 00:22:28] was closing. We were sorry to hear that.

Marcus: Yeah.

Pratt: We like Chuck's Fish a lot. Shout-out to Charles Morgan and the Morgan family. Chuck's and Five, I think, Five has got the best cheeseburger in town.

Marcus: We just ate there. If I had known you were a fan, we would have invited you to lunch, but yeah-

Pratt: So, I've got to hold up Chuck's and Five, for sure.

Marcus: Yeah. Now, we had sushi at Chuck's two or three weeks ago, and I told John Fry, the manager over at Five, I told him my brain started leaking out of head, because it was ... It blew my mind, you know, it was just so good.

Pratt: The Morgan family are big Alabama fans, also.

Marcus: Of course, roll tide.

Pratt: Roll tide.

Marcus: I can't believe I just said that. It's all good.

Pratt: Everybody, y'all capture that and replay it in the office.

Marcus: Yes, replay it. All right, so we already mentioned, so is there any other mechanism by which you communicate with people outside of the website? Is there some place else where they can connect with maybe with you personally, or do you have a Facebook page?

Pratt: Sure. I've got a Facebook page. Wilmer Hall has a Facebook page. All of our contact information is on the website. We like to talk to people in person, we're losing that. Of course, we love people to follow us on Facebook and hear all the stories.

You can also shoot me an email. We also have a monthly e-newsletter that tells stories about our residents and usually some sort of reflection or historical piece. Shoot me an email or give me a call and we can add you to that list.

Marcus: Very good. Well, I want to thank you for coming on the podcast.

Pratt: Thanks for having me.

Marcus: Yeah. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?

Pratt: No, I just want to say how happy I am with the way everything's going in Mobile, and I'm glad Wilmer Hall is a part of that. I think Mobile's doing really well. I think Blue Fish's success is a good example of that.

Marcus: I appreciate it.

Pratt: But, a rising tide raises all ships, and we're glad to be here.

Marcus: That is absolutely true. We fervently believe that, so ... But, yeah, I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment about this city. It's very cool to watch.

Well Pratt, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a non-profit executive director. Since I normally say owner and entrepreneur, but it's been great talking with you man.

Pratt: Thanks for having me.

Follow Us on Instagram @allthingsmobileal, and use the hashtag #allthingsmobileal