Allison Black Cornelius has been helping others her entire adult life. She spearheaded the passage of Megan’s Law, the country’s first sex offender registry. She later founded a consulting company that helps non-profits. Now she heads the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. For Women’s History Month, Cornelius tells WBHM’s Esther Ciammachilli how her motivation to help others began after she was sexually assaulted at age seven.
Cornelius: For me I think it has been a reframing of the things that kind of affect a lot of survivors: obsessive compulsive disorders, hyperactivity awareness disorders, not feeling lovable. The best way to describe it is this: There was a gentleman in this town who was a very successful man. He had a few children, and he died suddenly. His widow came to me and said “we’ve got a problem. Our daughter since his death has just gone downhill.” She was destined to be a division one athlete and all of a sudden in a few months she drops out of high school and she becomes a drug addict. Her mom comes to me and says, “I just want you to sit down talk to her.”
She met me at a fast food place. She walked in and I couldn’t believe what I saw. She was addicted. She was sore covered. She was selling herself. And she sat down and she said, “I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t know what you think you can do. I don’t know what my purpose is. I’m never going to probably know, but I don’t have a purpose. So you need to get out of here.” And I said, “Well actually you do. Whoever hurt you, you’re living that person’s purpose. You’ve got your purpose, but you’re so busy fulfilling what he or she wants you to fulfill that it’s not good for you but is really good for them. So good for you. You’re on purpose, it’s just not yours.” And she just starts bawling and she shares with me that her dad’s brother had sexually abused her her entire life and that her dad had died never knowing it and she couldn’t get past it. But after that she cleaned herself up. She’s incredible right now. You would know her in this community. She’s an amazing woman. She mentors other people. But I think for me that was the deal. After the sexual assault I had made a deal with God that look if you get me through this I literally remember what I said when I was being raped. “You get me through this I mean don’t let me die I promise you I will spend the rest of my life doing whatever I need to do.”
Ciammachilli: So you spearheaded the passage of Megan’s Law, you started a consulting company that helps non-profits be successful and now you’re the CEO of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. Talk about your time as the head of GBHS.
Cornelius: Since I’ve been there, we’ve taken over animal control, we’ve gone from 33 employees to about 80, the budget’s gone from $1.6 million to $4.6 million, one location to three locations. We’re about to have a $30 million development I believe right here right across the street from you on that 27 acres. The most important thing to me though is that the live release rate is now almost 80 percent, which for a shelter of our size, our numbers are the same as Phoenix and Denver and Chicago, which is crazy.
Ciammachilli: So live release means you’re a no-kill shelter?
Cornelius: Well, I don’t like the word no-kill. I call no-kills qualified intake shelters because usually the way they’re no-kill, so to speak, is they don’t take the animals you can’t adopt out. I don’t think the public realizes that. But what we do do is work on that unnecessary [euthanasia] rate. The necessary euthanasia rate is always going to be a problem because you can’t adopt those animals out. But the unnecessary rate, which is animals that are perfectly healthy and perfectly adoptable, but you don’t have the space or they’ve been on the floor too long. That’s the number we’re pinpointing right now. And goodness knows we’re trying to stop that intake number.
Ciammachilli: Are you a cat person or a dog person?
Cornelius: This is funny. I have a severe allergy to cats and I can go in the cat room and do litter boxes for about five minutes. And it’s really funny to the staff to see me and my reaction because I start to swell and I get hives and my eyes start watering. But if I could have a cat that would be like my dream thing. Cats, they make me feel peaceful, and dogs make me feel energetic and happy and I wish I could have both. But I have to say the cats are so beautiful that I literally just love being around them, but I also love the dogs.
Ciammachilli: You know Garrison Keillor has a famous quote about cats: “Cats are nature’s way of showing that not everything in life has a purpose.” And when you say they make you feel meditative …
Cornelius: They’re like the Buddhist monks of our world and maybe the dogs are the Tony Robbins’. Yeah. That’s a better metaphor.
Ciammachilli: That is a great way to put it. So can you talk about a time in your professional career where you maybe faced adversity because you are a female.
Cornelius: Ok, I’m going to get so much mail on this. I have to tell you that in my career men have been incredibly supportive of me. There are CEOs right now in the city that have encouraged me, written me notes, made contributions. Certainly pay disparity is an adversity, but that’s an adversity for every woman. But for me personally, and I say this on stage all the time, I have faced more adversity professionally from women than I have from men. I don’t know what that’s about. I’ve met lots of other women who’ve said that. I’ve had bosses that have tried very hard not to let me get promoted, female bosses. I’ve had female business people that didn’t care for my direct point of view, and then go the extra mile to try to keep me from making it, especially in the not for profit consulting sector. Now I’m totally aware that it goes on. And when it does go on and I know it’s gone on I will speak to it directly. But as Allison black Cornelius, I’ve been just completely supported by men.