At the tender age of 11 years old, Brenda Lovelady Spahn offered her future vocation to God. She was inspired, she said, by the idea of international mission work, but it took her no fewer than 40 years to figure out what would become her greatest passion and calling. Today, the founder of Birmingham’s well-known Lovelady Center looks back fondly on the last decade and a half – after the turning point, you might say, of knowing what she could do to uplift women in her community.
Spahn admitted she was already doing “financially well” in her career before she opened the Lovelady Center — yet, she knew this simple definition of success wasn’t enough. One day, she decided to give her time to the Birmingham Work Release Center — which she called “a hellacious place” — and ended up bonding emotionally and spiritually with several of the women prisoners there. Spahn regularly cheered the women on when they left the Work Release Center — then felt frustrated on their behalf when they often returned. She learned how they were sent away with a bus ticket to “go where they’d come from,” which often, understandably, was not an ideal solution. Spahn wondered if perhaps the answer was a little more preparation before returning to society, and with that, the seed of the Lovelady Center took sprout. “When God called me to minister to women, I had no clue what that would look like at first,” she admitted.
First things were first — after her lightbulb idea, Spahn went with her instincts and spoke to her husband, Jeff, about inviting a few prisoners to stay inside their house, which, she said, was a challenging request but ultimately resulted in six women being sent from the Work Release Center to live on “Hob-Hill,” the nickname of the Spahn residence. Figuring she’d be living with shoplifters and other petty criminals, Spahn was alarmed to discover that these six women had highly violent crimes on their records. Was she making a prudent decision for herself and her family? Still, she swallowed her apprehension and treated the women like family, taking them shopping for underwear and other necessities, setting up comfy twin beds and hiring a driver and a house mom. But when the house mom and the driver saw the six women, they politely excused themselves from the employment opportunity. That left Spahn and her daughter, Melinda, to do everything — which they did.
Of course, Spahn and her daughter were clueless about running a halfway house — or a “wholeway house” as the Lovelady Center came to be known. Programs to keep the women on track and teach them important life skills as well as spiritual and emotional well-being were written "as they went along.” In the early days, funding for the project was mostly through UAB’s TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities) program, according to Spahn. But the Lovelady Center soon gained traction. “Six women grew to more than 40 in no time,” she recalled.
Today, more than 12,000 women — and their children — have lived in and graduated from the Lovelady Center, and the success rate for reintegration into society following the program is about 85%. Spahn’s eldest son, Beau, is now operations manager, while Melinda still runs the facility along with her mother, and Melinda’s twin brother, Matthew, sits on the board of directors. Two thrift stores in Irondale and Trussville support the Lovelady Center mission, and graduates of the program work as store associates. The Lovelady Center has relocated from Spahn’s private residence to the former East End Memorial Hospital, and talks of moving into an even larger facility have been in the works. Spahn is still looking forward to growth in the future.
“I give all of this to God,” she beamed. “It has taken years. I saw little, and the Lord saw big.
I help these women believe that they have an identity besides who they were before. And those first six women are some of my best friends today. One died two years ago, Sharon Curry. It broke my heart. She was the meanest woman, but then she turned out to have the softest heart.”