Marsha Hobin Williamson, CEO of Dallas 24 Hour Club, oversees an organization dedicated to lifting people up and out of homelessness and addiction. She graduated from Trinity in 1974, and since then has worked in a variety of different industries. Little did she know that her professional background, her vast network of friends and colleagues, and her own life experiences would make her the perfect person to head a nonprofit organization that serves some of Dallas’s most vulnerable citizens.
Marsha was born and raised in the Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas. Her father was the executive assistant at Highland Park Presbyterian Church for 35 years. “I grew up living across the street from the church,” Marsha recalls. “It was my second home.”
She remembers that her parents wanted her to go to a Presbyterian school, and even though Trinity wasn’t their first choice, they agreed to take her for a visit during spring break of her junior year in high school. “The minute I walked on campus I knew it was where I wanted to be. Of course, it was beautiful. The trees were blooming, and I loved the architecture. Everybody I met I really liked, and I felt connected to them.”
Her hopes of attending Trinity were quickly dashed by her father when he told her, “You can’t go to school here, because we just can’t afford it.” Fortunately for Marsha, though, “some miracles happened and a man from our church offered to pay for my college. That was really special.”
When Marsha began her first year at Trinity, she says she “immediately felt integrated into the culture. I loved the professors, and I loved the activities. San Antonio was so multicultural compared to Dallas at the time. The only thing I didn’t love was that my high school boyfriend was on a full scholarship at another school.” That soon changed when her boyfriend, Steve Williamson ’74, decided to transfer to Trinity. Marsha and Steve have now been married for 45 years. “We’re good partners,” Marsha explains. “He’s been very supportive of what I do.”
One of Marsha’s fondest memories of her time at Trinity was taking Professor Colleen Grissom’s literature class. “Dr. Grissom was the Dean of Students at that time. I remember taking her class pass/fail and it was such a joy! She always accused me of not reading the books, and I read every single one of them!” Dean Grissom helped to establish a Mortar Board (National College Senior Honor Society) chapter at Trinity, and probably eventually realized that Marsha was indeed an excellent student when she became its first president.
After graduating from Trinity with a double major in history and education, Marsha decided that teaching was not for her. In the mid-70s the U.S. economy was in a downturn, so she took the first job that she was offered and began working at a savings and loan association. She then translated that experience into working at EDS, Electronic Data Systems, one of the first tech companies where she filled a unique niche. “I was a square peg in a round hole because I wasn’t technical, but I could talk to the technical people and I could talk to the customers,” she describes. “They had never had anybody like that.”
Although Marsha loves to work, she took time off to have three children. After her youngest son was born, she worked for a while as the childcare director at her church and then joined forces with her husband and other friends to start a new church. “I became the first employee, and really used my strengths as being a jack of all trades and master of none. I ended up being the coordinator of ministry operations at a church of 5,000 people. I did that for seven years, and I loved it.”
Always ready for a new challenge, Marsha eventually started her own consulting firm where she worked for 13 years doing a number of special projects. “We helped establish a library in our community. I also did a lot of fundraising and strategic planning for churches.” It was her job as a consultant that led her to Dallas 24 Hour Club. They hired her to help with a capital campaign, but when the executive director left in February of 2014, the board asked Marsha to step in as the interim director. Marsha shares, “Part of the reason it was attractive to me is that one of our loved ones had struggled with mental illness and addiction, and it affected our whole family. I had enough understanding of addiction to be helpful, and I had more understanding of how to run an organization.”
Dallas 24 Hour Club, affectionately known to its residents as The 24, was established in 1969. Its mission, as stated on its website, is to provide “safe, sober transitional living for homeless men and women seeking a brand-new life away from drugs and alcohol.” When Marsha accepted the job as new executive director, the organization had no database, had never hosted a fundraiser, and was extremely low on funds. Worse still, it was housed in a 100-year-old hotel near downtown Dallas whose biggest claim to fame was that Bonnie and Clyde had stayed there. Marsha explains that since “they did no maintenance on the building, it was falling down.”
With the organization in desperate need of help on many fronts, Marsha got to work. “We started getting procedures written down, we started building community support, and we had our first fundraiser in the parking lot of the facility.”
In early 2016, Marsha was able to enlist the help of Michael Young to lead a fundraising effort with the goal of raising one million dollars to construct a brand-new building for the organization. Later that year, at the suggestion of her husband, Marsha and another board member of The 24 met with Steve Van Amburgh, the CEO of the development company KDC. “Steve was a childhood friend. We all went to high school together. In less than 15 minutes he said, ‘Here’s how we’re going to get this done. I’m going to build this building pro bono for you.’”
At that point the board of The 24 had already secured the help of prestigious architectural firm HKS and had received a Citizen HKS Award, providing them with $250,000 in architectural services. Thanks to the help and support of HKS, they had the plans for their new facility. Now, with Steve Van Amburgh spear-heading the construction effort, the building would soon become a reality. He organized the contractors and over 100 sub-contractors, most of whom donated the labor and materials to build the new home of The 24 from the ground up.
Marsha remembers that all this help came just in the nick of time. By late 2016, the building was in such disrepair that they were in constant fear of being shut down for fire code infractions. For example, “two weeks before we tore our building down,” Marsha noted, “a possum fell through the ceiling in the middle of a 7 a.m. recovery meeting.” On demolition day, it only took one bulldozer 45 minutes to raze the entire 7,000-foot structure.
A little over a year later, on February 28, 2018, the new 14,000 square foot facility opened its doors. Marsha says she still gets chills when she tells the story of how many people came together to make this dream a reality. She explains that at the end of every construction meeting, contractors would thank her for the opportunity to work on the project. “They would tell me, ‘My wife has been sober for over 20 years,’ or ‘I’ve been sober.’” One of the men who worked on the demolition of the original building had been a resident there himself and shared with Marsha that thanks to The 24, he had stayed sober for 27 years.
With the new building up and running, the organization is able to help more than 600 people each year. They currently have 92 residents. People come in off the streets and can stay at The 24 for up to six months. Many of the key staff members are former residents themselves. They use a peer-to-peer system and help the new residents work through the 12 steps as they recover from drug and alcohol addiction.
In August of 2020, Marsha was honored with the DCEO Award for Leadership Excellence for a small to medium nonprofit. She was also featured in the Park Cities Newspaper as one of 2020’s Most Remarkable Women. She says that the best part of being recognized for her work with The 24 is that it brings new volunteers and donors to the organization.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Marsha, with the support of the board, has since helped launch the opening of Tillman House, where successful graduates of The 24 can continue their recovery in fully-furnished, affordable apartments. She explains that “having a continuum of care is what’s needed for people who are learning to live independently.” Residents can live at Tillman House for up to one year and must have a job and pay a fee for their housing.
Marsha sums up all the work that she and the staff of The 24 do as “being a friend.” If you’re interested in following Marsha’s example and being a friend to people trying to get their lives back on track, please check out dallas24hourclub.org to see how you can help.
Editor’s Note: The building in the photo is of the Tillman House.