I was born in a little town called Ackerman, MS, and grew up on a 140-acre dairy farm with two brothers, all of us close to the same age. Two grandparents lived with us for periods of time, so I had lots of authority figures around me!
We lived about four and a half miles outside of town, and our house was a big Victorian farmhouse with gingerbread trim on the outside. It was divided by a hall that ran down the middle so that the grandparents lived on one side, and we lived on the other. There were no locks on our doors.
We had lots of farm chores — milking by hand, feeding the chickens, and gathering eggs. We had huge gardens with all kinds of vegetables that we froze and canned for winter meals. We had all sorts of orchards — pecan, pear, apple, peach, and plum. We also had grape and muscadine arbors. We grew corn and hay to feed the animals, and for pets, we had dogs, cats, and ducks. We even had a lamb and a goat once — and, of course, cattle and horses. We could play only after all our work was done — and farm work was never done!
But we'd ride horses and bikes and go swimming at the old railroad trestle. Water ran down the trestle and formed a big pool. There was no pool in town, so the people from town went swimming there, too.
Dad was the salt of the earth. He was a solid kind of guy with a deep faith, and he had to be one of the most compassionate people I've ever known. He was happiest when he was working on the farm. He loved the land and tinkering in his woodworking shop. He was a very calm and contented soul, and he shared many words of wisdom with me, which I repeat often. I inherited his calm spirit and commitment to community.
Mother was more of a worrier, but there has to be a place in heaven for her. She managed two sets of grandparents, three teenagers, and menopause all at the same time! I inherited her compassion and that rural work ethic — which I've cursed and blessed many times over my life! She was very smart and taught me how to sew and cook. She stayed home with us until we were older, and then she went to work in the cafeteria at Mississippi State.
My dad's mother was afraid to stay by herself, even in the daytime. I spent a lot of time on the couch listening and talking to her, and in doing so, learned much family history.
My first paying job was at the hospital in Ackerman when I was 13. I just wanted to work. The administrator was a friend of my father's, and he let me. I even offered to work for free — that's how much I wanted to work. I did jobs for them that I realized later I shouldn't have done: vital signs, baths, and working in the emergency room! They'd have me sit with patients who were really, really sick and/or dying so that I could alert the staff when anything changed with that patient. Little did I know that what I was doing then would serve me so well in what I'm doing now.
I went to a junior college out of high school, and then the rest of my college was done at nights or on weekends, piecemealed over many years because I got married in 1966 when I was 20 years old. Bill was six years older than me, and he sometimes worked for my father. He was an electrical salesman, and his job moved us to Memphis, then back to Mississippi, and eventually settled us in Germantown. We had two children: Christy and Jeff.
I worked as a nurse as well as in a physician's office while going to school. There was an opening in the front office, and I just never went back to nursing. I eventually retired as a medical administrator.
In 1998, after 35 years of marriage and much thought and prayer, I could see that my marriage just wasn't going to make it. I realized there was nothing I could do that would save it. The children were adults, so I made the decision to move out.
Throughout the marriage, I had been involved in volunteering for several social justice–type organizations. I volunteered in AIDS ministry, mentored pregnant teens, volunteered with hospice, did a lot of racial reconciliation work. When I moved out, I continued to do all of those things, and I started taking servant leadership classes.
It was in that 10-month formation class that I felt called to live in Christian community in an inner-city neighborhood. I had been going to church in Binghampton for 12 years. I spent a lot of time doing work here, but I'd always feel guilty about going back to Germantown to sleep at night.
When I told my family and friends that I planned to move to Binghampton to live in Christian community, my daughter thought it was a little strange, but she was supportive. My son said it was the craziest thing he'd ever heard of — although three years later, he moved into the neighborhood a block from me. My husband knew I was crazy. My parents and older brother were OK with it, but my younger brother thought I was nuts.
But I never wavered nor experienced doubt about what I was doing.
Two other church members and I planned to move into a house in Binghampton in 2000. Before we moved, one decided it was something he could not do. The other guy only stayed about a year, although he emotionally withdrew after just six months. So I lived alone in the house for three years, but I never felt fear — physically or emotionally.
The house was open to all. We had meals as a community there. We had children's activities, and the den was set up with computers and games. It wasn't unusual for me to come home from my job and find 10 to 12 children waiting on the porch to get into the house. We had night concerts on the lawn — anything to gather a crowd and build relationships.
Five blocks away, in 2004, the building that today houses Caritas Village went on the market. We closed on the property in 2005, the same year I retired from my medical administration career. We started with a coffee shop and a cultural center, and now we're filled with programs and activities.
I am amazed every day at what God has done with this place. I thought it would work, but I don't think I ever thought it would work quite as well as it has. Everything that's here, somebody started. I just open the doors every morning, and it all unfolds. It's indescribable what goes on here. Miracles take place all over, and I know I was destined to be here.
The name Caritas … is pronounced CARE-uh-taus. It's a Latin word meaning "love for all people." When I was searching for a name, my daughter said I could use that word, but if she ever did a ministry, she was going to use it, too!
One of the reasons I started Caritas Village … When I left Binghampton for work every morning, I'd see 10 to 15 young men just hanging on the apartment steps across the street doing nothing, going nowhere. I thought, "We might not be able to do anything with those guys, but if we can catch them before they get to the apartment steps — if we can get a building and provide programs and learning opportunities, it would give them someplace to go and build skills at the same time."
As a child, I wanted to be … a nurse. I always knew that. I wanted to go into the Peace Corps, but I never did that. I read the whole series of Cherry Ames books.
The name Onie … was my grandmother's name.
A lesson I learned from my father … Dad had a neat way of teaching economics. He would give us a calf, and we would raise it. If it was a male, we sold it; if it was a female, we kept it, and you could build a herd that way. I bought my first sewing machine when I was 10 by selling a calf.
I call it a "Ministry of Presence" because … we just want to be here and live among the people. We are not a social service agency. I don't have any idea what's best for other folks; I hardly know what's best for myself. So to just be here, be present, be a part of the neighborhood, and share joys and sorrows. Then it becomes "us" instead of "us vs. them."
This ministry required me to sacrifice … absolutely nothing.
I believe creativity is more valuable than knowledge because … if we can think outside the box, it's amazing what we can do with knowledge. I read that for children living in poverty, art is more important than bread.
Caritas is governed by … a mission group of about six people. We follow spiritual disciplines, meet weekly, and hold each other accountable for our disciplines. When this building went up for sale in 2004, I told the mission group, "I think we should buy the building and open a coffee shop." Without exception, they each said, "We don't have the energy for that." They all were busy with ministries of their own. But six weeks later, they saw that my vision was unchanged, so they told me to gather support for it. I mailed about 100 letters outlining my vision and received $38,000 and a five-year-old van. That's what we used for the down payment for Caritas Village.
When I was named the Women's Foundation Legends Award Honoree, I thought … Oh, my gosh! It was very humbling — particularly with the lineup of exceptional women who were honored this year. I couldn't believe they put me in that category!
The public's biggest misperception about poverty … is that impoverished people are lazy and choose to live that lifestyle.
Financially, I grew up in ... rural poverty, but that is so different from urban poverty, because in the country, there are so many natural resources. We had everything we needed and an awful lot of things we wanted. When we needed something, we just sold a tree or a cow. When I married and moved into a suburban neighborhood, I looked for the trees and cows, and there weren't any, of course! It felt a little scary not to have things I could sell if I needed something.
When I moved into Binghampton, my neighbors … accepted me, for the most part, and I think that's partly because I had already spent a lot of time in the neighborhood and developed relationships. But one day, shortly after we moved in, someone delivered 75 loaves of bread to me! So I put the bread in a basket and started down the street, knocking on doors, introducing myself, and passing out bread. Some took the bread readily and gladly; others refused it. It was a good lesson for me. I decided then that my job was to keep passing out bread — whatever "bread" looked like — regardless of how people received it.
One of the biggest adjustments I had to make in the beginning … was having children around me all the time, and I never left the neighborhood without taking a child with me wherever I was going.
When I arrived, the Binghampton community was … very trash-filled — litter everywhere. Every Sunday, the kids and I took shopping carts around and filled them with trash. There was violence in the neighborhood. It wasn't unusual to hear gunshots coming from the apartments across the street from the house. Now, we almost never hear gunshots.
In college I earned money by … sewing. I made clothes for people in the dorm, cheerleading uniforms, a friend's wedding dress, tailoring jobs — but I don't sew at all anymore.
My hours at Caritas … I open the doors at 8:30 or 9 o'clock in the morning, and I leave around 9 o'clock in the evening — about 60 to 70 hours per week. For years, I was the only person here at night, so I did all the cooking, prep work, and order-taking during lunch. Now we have more volunteers to help. I do the bookwork. I do whatever needs to be done.
To keep myself from burning out, I … take 45 minutes every morning for prayer and meditation. And on rare occasions, I'll do something creative — jewelry-making, writing — that energizes me.
My favorite television program … The last time I watched TV was Sep. 11, 2001. I do own a TV, but it's in the den where the doc lives.
Religion … We were Methodists and always went to church growing up. Our church only had services two Sunday afternoons a month, so the rest of the time, we went to the Baptist church in the neighborhood. My dad taught Sunday school for years in the Baptist church.
Caritas Village's biggest challenge today … sustainability.
My parents' marriage … I never heard my parents have a cross word. Never. That's good, but it didn't give me any models for coping with conflict later on.
I regret … I remember in the third grade, I wanted to take piano. My brother had just started taking band, so my parents said, "Let's wait a little while. I'm not sure we can do both of those at the same time." At Christmas, they said I could take piano. Well, by that time my friend had already been taking for four months, and I was sure she was very far advanced, so I wouldn't take lessons. I regret that today because I don't know music at all.
Our community partners include … School of Servant Leadership, Binghampton Community Development Corp., Christ Community Clinic, Planned Parenthood, Rachel's Kids, SOS — and so many others.
Being called to serve feels like … For me, it was a gradual experience. I started thinking about it and then suddenly it was what I knew I must do.
Caritas Village is patterned after … some ministries in Washington D.C. that I was introduced to during a conference there. I'll never forget one of the speakers: C.W. Harris. He was a great big guy who had moved into an inner-city neighborhood in Baltimore. He said, "When you move into a neighborhood, you can't leave when <<you>> want to leave. You can leave only when the community says you can leave." I thought, "Oh, my God. I'm going to have to rethink this!" It never occurred to me how long I might be there. But it's true: It's not fair to leave, because we, as white privileged folks, can just drift in and drift out, and the people who live here don't have that option. Plus, they're used to people doing just that — doing something for a little while and then stopping.
When I moved into the neighborhood, my friends … My best friend from Germantown said, "You know I can't visit you in that neighborhood," and she didn't for five or six years. That was pretty hurtful, but you just have to get busy with other things.
To keep my heart from breaking, I … stay focused and do what is in front of me at that moment. If I focus on the big picture and the enormity of what needs to be done to correct this system of poverty we're in, I get overwhelmed, and my heart does break.
My greatest extravagance is … artwork and stationery! I have drawers of stationery.
Items still on my Bucket List … a new floor downstairs, renovate the upstairs, and a new dance floor upstairs.
The future of Caritas Village … This month marks our five-year anniversary, and we can't really do much more programming than we are now, financially and physically. We only have three part-time paid staff, and the rest of us are volunteers. But this place manages to evolve on its own and in its own way.
My final 2 cents … "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible." — St. Francis of Assisi.