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Women who Lead: Stories from the Third Sector

In Conversation with Miriam McAlister: A woman who has a clear sense of calling to her role of getting alongside and helping people   

Next in our series of blogs we bring you Miriam McAlister, Programme Manager at Coleraine-based charity Vineyard Compassion. Miriam, one of five children, reminisces about her Bushmills childhood, describing their home as a hub for the community. She says, “Our home was like a drop-in centre growing up and I always loved being around people.” 

Fast forward a couple of decades and nothing much has changed! Miriam now uses her nurturing and organising qualities in her role as Programme Manager at Vineyard Compassion in their purpose-built facility, The Hope Centre. Here, they provide various support services to the North Coast community, from food banks to housing and counselling. 


However, at age 16, art and design were Miriam’s first passion. She vividly recalls, “I would still be sitting agonizing over this piece of art after everyone had gone home from school.” 

But then Miriam's journey took an unexpected turn during her art college days in Belfast in the early '90s. She explains, “I had a really specific moment where I felt God asked me to go into a full-time ministry role. It was probably one of the clearest times I've ever heard Him speak to me, almost audibly. And that just changed the path I took.” 

Miriam, driven by her faith, emphasises, “It's never been about the position or the money. It's always been about following that sense of calling.” 

Doing What You Love 

Entering the charity sector in her 20s, Miriam worked for Youth for Christ, becoming the lead at a youth centre in the Silverstream Estate in North Belfast for 18 years. Reflecting on her role, Miriam notes, “The charity world requires you to be a jack of all trades – everything from fundraising and communication to event management and cleaning the toilets!” 

Miriam's passion for working with people echoes her parents' ethos of welcoming everyone into their home. While acknowledging the challenge of working with young people who are often facing difficult personal circumstances, she highlights the joy of leading them on life-affirming adventures. 

Expressing gratitude, she states, “I just feel really privileged that I've got to do the things that I've loved.” 

Tenacity is Essential 

Returning to Northern Ireland after three years studying in California, Miriam, without a clear plan, had a chance conversation with Ricky Wright (CEO of Vineyard Compassion). Shortly afterwards, she accepted a role with Vineyard Compassion as Programme Manager, a role she describes as a huge, unknown challenge. 

Miriam recalls the growth of the charity from humble beginnings. During the early days of Vineyard Compassion, she recalls 11 staff working out of a makeshift office; “It was a time when everyone just pitched in and did whatever was needed even if it wasn’t their skill set.” 

It was this period of pushing through the hard times that Miriam credits with fostering a tenacity that has carried her through many other challenges she has faced during her career. She says that this tenacity is essential to work in the third sector because “Otherwise, I don't think people would last because they may become disillusioned.” 

Women in the Third Sector 

When asked about the continuing appeal of the third sector to women, Miriam points to interesting career prospects and flexible working patterns. She says, “naturally women are a bit more empathetic but when I look right across our team that quality exists in everyone, not just the women.”     

While acknowledging many leadership roles across the UK are occupied by men, Miriam tells us; “I'm very proud to say that I have female friends who are CEOs of charities.” Miriam’s experience of leadership and equality in the sector has been positive. She says, “I've never felt that I have had to fight for something more. I know who I am, and I know my voice is important.”  

Advice to Young People 

Drawing on her extensive experience, Miriam advises aspiring charity workers to seek out a role that feels like more than just a job, 

“I think there is that sense of calling or vocation or a passion that you need to have. Most people don't do it for the money.” 

Adventurous Spirit, Creative Heart 

Outside her demanding role, Miriam relaxes by spending quality time with family, experimenting with cooking, and looking forward to travel. As a self-confessed water baby, she tells us, “I love being in the water and it's getting to the point now where I need to be getting out on the paddle board again!” 

Miriam’s life serves as an inspiring story, encouraging people to pursue their calling, tackle challenges with tenacity, and embrace a life full of purpose.  

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Ricky Wright
Ricky Wright

Miriam is an absolute gift to the team at Vineyard Compassion. She is high capacity, high integrity and full of wisdom with a genuine heart for people. Great to celebrate Miriam today!

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