Meet a Homeowner - Miss Leah
Recently, our faithful homeowner relations staffer, Emily Gluntz, sat down with one of the homeowners we've had the pleasure of working with - Miss Leah. Here's a window into their encouraging conversation. Miss Leah, we loved partnering with you this last summer and have had the privilege of getting to know you. In the summer we celebrated the completion of a new roof on your home and this last fall we mourned with you as you lost your husband. There’s no doubt that this last year has held a lot for you and yet you are always eager to give back in any way that you can! I know you’ve impacted and blessed so many of our staff and campers and so I’d love to give our broader SOS audience an opportunity to get to know you a little better!
Where are you from originally?
Washington State & Idaho. My first husband was in his post doctorate at Washington State and thought he had signed a job contract to work in Pittsburgh (PA). Well, he came home one day with an ashen face and I knew either something shocking or tragic had happened. It turned out that he had signed a contract to work in Vicksburg (MS), not Pittsburgh (PA) like he had thought….and the movers were already scheduled.
We got down there and knew we needed to enroll our children in school and since my husband had always attended public schools, he wanted ours to do the same. We did not know that it was common in the south to have both public and private schools, or academies, alongside each other in a community and they were usually divided along color lines. We learned that there was a very special public elementary school where the arts were well represented along with traditional academic curriculum so I went down and toured the ABC (Arts in the Basic Curriculum) elementary public school. That school was just as much of a shock to me because of its size of over 700 children K-6 and its racial makeup of over 75% African American. Coming from the Northwest this was very intimidating to me and I was afraid to leave my children there. With the south and its culture being very new to me I felt it was best to stay close to my young children and got involved with the PTA and started advocating for the school. Maybe it was because I was a white woman or maybe it was just because I asked, but I found wonderful people who would listen to me and give the school the community support that it desperately needed. Oh, and did I mention that George had been the Principal of this very special Project ABC Elementary School? George later became the 1st African American Conservator for the Mississippi State Department of Education. He accepted the position as Conservator and was placed over 13 failing school districts in the Delta Region; he had successfully improved test scores at every school where he held the position as Principal and he successfully did the same as Conservator. Several years later after we both were divorced, I ended up marrying this very special man.
How long have you been in the Heights neighborhood?
We moved to the Heights (near Binghampton) from Cordova 8 years ago. My husband’s inability to continue working due to his struggle with what turned out to be Early Onset Alzheimer’s brought us to midtown where we could decrease our cost of living and be close to the universities our children were attending and also be where I really wanted to live in the heart of Memphis. And thanks to places like SOS and Caritas, it’s the first time in our marriage that we felt a part of the community we were living in. As a mixed couple, it can be difficult to find a place that we can call home so I really value the connections we’ve been able to make.
Has the culture of the neighborhood shifted much since you first moved in?
Yes, there is a stability in the neighborhood that wasn’t here before. Our home was a rooming house before we moved in. There were constantly people in and out… mostly individuals that were on their way to rehab or just getting out. I remember standing outside in my yard after we moved in and watching the drug dealers and prostitutes hanging out on the street corner and asking them what they were doing and then letting them know that they needed to find a new place to do their business. After several of these encounters they moved on. But people buying and taking care of their homes goes a long way in stabilizing the neighborhood and we’ve seen more of that happening. It also helps that we’ve built street cred and I feel grateful to have good neighbors. I feel that we are all invested in our little community and keeping our street safe. I love my home and as a white woman I am comfortable in my neighborhood, even now that my husband is gone. I am blessed to still have a lot of family here with me.
This last summer we partnered with you and your (late) husband Mr. George as well as your neighbor across the street, Mr. Melvin. How did it impact the street to have so many kids working there 5 days a week?
Positively. My next door neighbor was blessed to be able to help care for several of his grandchildren during the summer school break and our summer camp group saw that there was an opportunity to bless the family with
picnic lunches and fun summer games and give companionship to the grandchildren. This provided a much needed break and support to my neighbors family. Pretty soon the children from another home across the street were invited into the activities and it really made me happy to see community being created on behalf of the children. The group that was working on my house spent monies out of their own pockets on food, fun, and games. Big Dog made a donation on account of the children as well, so that Ashley could buy meat and bread and peanut butter and we made sandwiches and Kool-Aid for all of children throughout the week. After the group was done working on my house each day, they would go hold and nurture those kids. Ashley did an incredible job taking care of that family. She has a heart of gold and a calling for children.
It's been 6 months since camp ended and we completed work on your roof-- when you look back on the summer, what was the hardest aspect of having campers at your home for 7 weeks of construction and what was the best part?
The hardest part was being a 100% full-time caregiver for my husband. He had Alzheimer's and you never knew when the banging on the roof, constant traffic in and out of the house or people needing to use the restroom would strike him wrong and cause him great confusion and agitation. But the hardest part turned out to be the best part. Taking care of a sick husband was so hard and those groups were there to serve us when we needed it the most. I was so grateful for their hard work, help with cleaning the house & taking the trash out. Bringing them into my home and taking care of them helped me keep going in such a difficult time. In the end, the best part was me learning to spill my guts & be forthright with them from the beginning about who we were, how we got here and what our life looks like now. When I was that honest with the groups up front, it gave them the freedom to care for us and that was incredible.
Was it helpful to have one consistent team leader partner with you the entire summer?
There is no way I could have done it had Ashley not been the anchor. Ashley got hit the hardest as she would get used to working with one group and then have to adjust to a new one the next week… but she did it so well and worked so hard. I made her my daughter for the summer and will always have a place for her in my heart.
Most of the kids who attended camp haven't spent much time in your neighborhood prior to last summer. What kind of questions did they ask over the summer and what kind of things did you share with them to help them see past the crime, boarded up houses & such?
I could see in the faces of many of the groups that they were uncomfortable to be in my neighborhood and possibly even uncomfortable to be at my home. They know what to do with all white communities and they are familiar with all black communities but they didn’t necessarily know what to do with a home where both black & white were united and represented. But you have to allow that discomfort to take place in order to learn. I felt it was my job to initiate the awkward conversations & be transparent. When I shared the story of how we got here, answering the looks of confusion on their faces, it was a game changer. Once people saw that door open, they felt they could talk about it. Whether or not they understood or could relate didn’t matter- they dropped their preconceived notions. I’m honored to be a facilitator in the same way that SOS has been a pillar of fire that facilitates relationships between different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds all the while strengthening homeownership and our neighborhood.
You have been so eager to jump in and serve with us once camp season comes around again-- what are some of the ways you are expecting to get connected?
When I applied for assistance almost two years ago, I made a commitment to God that I would minister and serve however I could. I’m looking forward to being apart of the clean-up crew on Fridays during spring break camps and connecting with the full-time staff through that.
Do you plan to stay in the Heights area for a while yet?
Yes, as long as I can. I want to stay connected to my community here on my street as well as at SOS & Caritas.
We are so excited to see your smiling face around SOS more often this Spring!