Seeking to Make an Impact

A woman I met only once died on Monday of a sudden heart attack. Just like that, a life thriving and making the world better, and then, in the blink of an eye, a life ended.

Miss Yvonne, as she was known to her constituents at Neighborhood House in Saginaw, was literally a life-saver. Since 1999, she welcomed countless children and adolescents into this community center as a way to promote education and save them from the streets.

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This is the kind of work that I get to do, and I am so lucky. I met Miss Yvonne when I spent the day with her in Saginaw, interviewing and meeting and witnessing the story behind Neighborhood House, so that I could pitch it to media on behalf of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, one of my biggest PR clients.

One day, with lifelong impact.

She was memorialized in a beautiful obituary on Mlive.com (read it here) and LSSM held a poignant memorial service for her. She was beloved. She changed people’s lives (read how below).

But what most struck me this week as I reflected on her passing was how she devoted herself to making the world a better place, one person at a time. How many of us get to do that in our work?

Really, all of us should be, right? What better pursuit could exist?

That’s why I feel so lucky to do the work that I do. I am a storyteller, a writer, a person who helps with business development and promotion. Using my God-given talents and instincts, I weave words together and create strategies so that organizations and individuals can impact the world and improve it.

Let me say that again: using my God-given talents and instincts…

That’s the key. When we do what we were born to do, we impact those around us. We bring goodness to life. We create a path for bettering our communities.

Miss Yvonne did so using her innate skills and deeply-held beliefs. And when people who are driven by purpose and belief cross paths, we can move mountains.

It’s a lucky person whose work is so compelling that it doesn’t feel like work and yet whose work truly impacts others.

My Memorial for Miss Yvonne

Yvonne Riggins-Thomas, director of Neighborhood House in Saginaw, Michigan, for 16 years, died suddenly Monday, February 9, 2015, of a heart attack.

In her tenure at Neighborhood House, Yvonne Riggins-Thomas was surrogate mom, no-nonsense administrator, teacher and problem-solver as director of the Saginaw community center. Neighborhood House is operated by Lutheran Social Services of Michigan but has been around longer than its parent organization.

For more than 85 years, Neighborhood House has been a place where kids can play and learn, get help with homework – and escape the dangers of the streets and in some cases, their own homes – since many parents are drug dealers, addicts or gang-bangers. Ninety percent of the kids who come to Neighborhood House fit into the low-income category.

But then, 90% of the kids who come to “The Neib,” as it’s known, emerge with excellent reading skills. In the summer, Miss Yvonne had them doing book reports and projects to continue their learning. Books are the most prominent accessory at The Neib, in fact – and Miss Yvonne gave books to children to take home.

“If a child cannot read, America will chew you up and spit you out,” said Miss Yvonne last year. Two parents complained to her about the emphasis on reading; they pulled their kids from the program – one landed in prison, the other ended up dead.

For adolescents and young adults, Neighborhood House offers substance abuse prevention and self-esteem classes. Scouts. A boxing club. GED prep. More than 250 people are fed a hot meal there daily between 3:45 and 5 pm, most of whom are children. “Anybody who shows up hungry, we’ll feed,” Miss Yvonne used to say.

In a sea of liquor stores, shuttered schools and abandoned homes, it is truly an oasis, thanks in large part to the tirelessness of Miss Yvonne’s devoted decades. Her hope was always to increase the number of children the center could serve and support more after-school and summer programs.

Her lifelong dream was to see Neighborhood House “become a campus where everyone can have a place to relate. My goal is to be open until 10 or 11 at night at least six days a week,” she shared before she died.

LSSM leaders have long been enamored with Miss Yvonne and her dedication. She turned Neighborhood House into a thriving center of hope – and dreamt of expanding it one day to become a campus that is not only a safe haven, but a launch pad for some of our nation’s poorest children and adolescents to build better lives than they ever thought possible.

Miss Yvonne showed us what we are capable of if we put our heart to it.

Born in El Dorado, Arkansas, Yvonne Riggins-Thomas was 62 years old when she died. She grew up in a family of 7 boys and 5 girls and though they lived in the city, they had a farm.

She once said, “We lived for the Arkansas State Fair – we took top honors in the agricultural department.” Although she started college down South, she did not finish until after she moved to Michigan in 1980.

Yvonne married and had a son and a daughter. Employment was scarce in El Dorado, so her husband left first, seeking work in Michigan. With no college education, he landed a job in a plant and six months later, Yvonne and the children followed.

Her husband worked in the plant for 10 years until he finished a college degree and transitioned to work in nonprofits. (Her husband died in 2002.)

Riggins-Thomas pursued an associate degree and then a bachelor degree at colleges in Saginaw. She worked in civic positions until she came to Neighborhood House in 1999.

Of her childhood, she was said, “We did not know that we were poor. Everything we raised, we ate. We grew corn to make our corn meal. I know how to cure meat and how to can. We made all of our clothes.”

Education was important for her mother, so all the children graduated high school. Yvonne saw her work at Neighborhood House as inspired by her mother’s life purpose.

Last year, she said, “We were known in our neighborhood that if anybody needed food or assistance, they came to my mother. I watched my mother as a child. This allows me to take that even further.”

A snapshot of some of the most successful constituents of Neighborhood House:

Daniel lost his daddy at 14, turning to the streets, gangs and drugs. MC earned his GED in prison and spent the last three years trying to rebuild his life. Apollo grew up in an abusive home and only learned about healthy relationships from Miss Yvonne and Neighborhood House.

For these twentysomething young men, and many of their peers, Neighborhood House is their best chance out of a generations-long downward spiral. Few have high school diplomas. All are reformed gangbangers; most have served time; none can get jobs because of felony records or lack of training.

But look into their eyes and you’ll find hearts of gold, a desire to do better and a yearning to raise their children in a solid home and make a difference in their community.

“These are my boys,” said Yvonne Riggins-Thomas, in 2013. “If your heart is there, and your heart is right, that’s what we look at. I am so thankful these boys are here.”

Daniel, MC and Apollo come to The Neib to play ball, lift weights and find direction – and after school lets out, they mentor children in sports and schoolwork – serving as examples of young men finally on the straight and narrow, making good choices.

“In the morning, Neighborhood House is a safe haven for boys that would be intimidating to people,” says Miss Yvonne. “I’m talking about individuals that have a street life. We average 40-50 young men ages 20 and older.”

After school, Daniel, MC, Apollo and others wait for children to arrive. The love for these children is visible in their eyes, the connection as fulfilling as family. The children have a hearty snack before plunging into planned activities. The young men find purpose in their work here, gratitude for the respect and value that no one else has ever shown them.

Open year-round, Neighborhood House sends vans and shuttles to pick up kids between the ages of 6 and 14 from five different schools, and in the summer, from their houses. Everyone who goes there – for homework help, for meals, for guidance – gets what they need free of charge.

I am so glad I had the gift of knowing Miss Yvonne and Neighborhood House. I am grateful for the time she gave me, and grateful to the boys who shared their stories with me. Most of all, I am flushed with gratitude for being able to work with clients like LSSM. 

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