Women’s History Month Special: Revisiting local sheroes

| March 5, 2014

 

Editor’s note: History is a living, breathing entity. Eight years ago, then Frost Illustrated writer Robbin L. Melton profiled a number of local women who were making history then. At that time, their legacies was not complete—nor are they today, because each of these women are still with us, contributing today. And, while we often repeat the legacies of important national and international figures during various history celebrations, too often, we overlook our own who deserve more than a one-time mention. The following are their original profiles presented back in 2006—lest we forget—followed by a brief update on these women:

 

Local super women saving Fort Wayne’s future

By Robbin L. Melton

Beautiful, courageous, intelligent, savvy and strong are attributes descriptive of the fictional 1970s Wonder Woman or Christy Love heroines bent on ridding the world of evil villains. While each did their part to make the world a safer place, neither, in a true sense, could really be considered a “super woman”—they didn’t have the responsibility of balancing their careers with taking care of a family. Yet, thousands of children, women and men looked up to Wonder Woman and Christy Love as women capable of doing it all.

Locally, many women really are doing it all, but no one will ever make television shows, movies or comic books about them because they’re perceived as just ordinary, average woman. Yet, what they accomplish on a daily basis surpasses anything Wonder Woman or Christy Love ever set out to do.

In recognition of Women’s History Month, Frost Illustrated managed to track down just a handful of Fort Wayne’s super women, specifically those who dedicate a significant amount of their time and energy to the area’s young people while juggling jobs, families and everyday life. Frost Illustrated salutes these local women—along with 2006 National Women’s History Project honorees Juana Gutierrez, Aileen Hernandez, Winona LaDuke, Cindy Maraon, Mary Aloysius Molloy, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, Mary Taylor Previte, Betty Reid Soskin, Mary Tsukamato and Marian Van Landingham—in addition to all women striving to make a difference in their homes, places of work, neighborhoods and communities.

 

Rosa Chapman

Rosa Chapman

Mission: Never give up on the children

Ever since Rosa Chapman became a mother about 30 years ago, she’s been drawn toward working with children and young adults. She answered that divine calling when she began working with young unwed mothers in the late 1970s.

“I never thought I’d be working with kids, but God called me to this,” she said. “It’s about strengthening families. I’m not doing anything new, I’m just following the word of God.”

Not long after Chapman began working with young single mothers by providing an ear to listen and a shoulder to lean on, Chapman found herself working with pregnant teens ages 13 and older.

“We matched mature Christian women with pregnant girls,” said Chapman. “Each woman would partner with a girl for two years, teaching them how to take care of themselves and their babies.” Chapman continued to mentor unwed teen mothers until she founded Friends of Bethany Inc.,

about four years later. “The vision for Friends of Bethany came from a pregnant 13-year-old,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing five years from now, but I believe there will be some change if people just turn back from their way of doing things to doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Through Friends of Bethany, Chapman helps mold young people, beginning as early as six-years-old, into upstanding young citizens of the community through a variety of spiritually, physically and emotionally-balanced outreach programs. As in any field involving interacting with other people, some days are better than others.

“Young people today are different from preceding generations,” said Chapman. “Parenting’s always been challenging, but more so today because parents aren’t training their children anymore. They’re buying them instead.”

Chapman, however, prefers to give children a loving and nurturing environment while teaching the significance of understanding what family is. And, her hard work over the past eight years has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. While Chapman has received numerous awards and honors for her efforts throughout the years, the highest accolades have come from the children she works with.

“Two generations of children have not been trained and those who are, follow their peers instead,” said Chapman. “Children aren’t fearful anymore, but I mean that in the sense that they’re not respectful anymore, but I get great rewards.

“One of my young people is now in college and seeing that without any strings attached is encouraging. That’s why I work hard for these kids. They just need to be challenged.”

Chapman’s outreach has grown to include working again with young mothers, and even wives and husbands, but reaching young minds and hearts is Chapman’s sole mission in life.

“I believe we will see some young people return to us and turn the tide if we just continue to reach out to them,” she said. “And, I believe young people are going to be the ones who reach their own. That’s why I teach my kids to how to mentor others. We have good young people out there and I believe in them.”

Today, Rosa Chapman is officially retired as the executive director of Friends of Bethany, but the organization still lives, with Chapman having the vision to pass the mantle on to the next generation of women leaders. She still serves as an active spiritual mentor in the community.

 

Kathleen Hill

Kathleen Hill

Music makes her world go ‘round

Whether or not she knew it, the late Miss Virginia opened up a whole new world when she introduced a little five-year-old black girl to the middle “C” note on a piano in 1955. Today, that “little girl” is spreading her love of music to other children throughout the community.

For the past 20 years, Kathleen Hill has been a staple at the Old Fort YMCA, doubling now as the membership services director and piano teacher. And, she’s been teaching piano to local children since 1968.

“When you do something you love… I just can’t believe it’s been that long,” said Hill with a hearty laugh. “I do it because I love it and I love it because it’s like watching a lightbulb come on. When a child ‘gets it,’ it’s like joy walked into the room and that’s a joy to me, knowing that they’ll carry that moment with them for the rest of their lives.”

As a fledgling piano student, Hill’s lessons cost just fifty cents apiece. It was her mother, Edna Mae Helen, however, who encouraged her to begin teaching.

“Back then, parents told their children what they were going to do and it was my mother who told me I was going to start teaching,” said Hill. “She always said ‘Kat will do it!’”

Hill, who also plans to resume piano lessons at Union Baptist Church, provides lessons to children ages five to 18 at Old Fort YMCA for only $5 each compared to her private lesson rates which are more than three times her YMCA rate. The reduced rate is not so much to help out the parents of children who might not otherwise be able to afford piano lessons, but to help children learn how to be comfortable with themselves, especially when tackling something new and unfamiliar to them.

“Watching children grow up and come back is a joy and that’s the joy in any teacher’s life,” said Hill. “Teaching piano is as natural to me as breathing, but when I look at the world today and see what some of our children are getting into, it mortifies me. And as a Christian woman, it’s my duty to teach what I know.”

Kathleen Hill is still one of the music directors at Union Baptist Church and still teaches young people music in the community.

 

Kenyetta Abdul-Azeez

Kenyetta Abdul-Azeez

Young teacher learning how to teach

Typically, most instructors attend college for several years to earn degrees and certifications to teach, but one young local woman has unwittingly become a teacher without even trying.

“I was pushed into teaching because I was a Three Rivers Jenbé Ensemble (TRJE) apprentice,” said Kenyetta Massie who now serves as TRJE’s West African dance instructor. “I wasn’t big on it at first, but now I am. I never imagined I’d be working with kids, just teens and adults. It’s different and it’s a learning experience, but I love seeing them progress in their dance, especially in those who aren’t aware of their bodies’ capabilities.”

Massie, a Snider High School graduate, has always been interested in movement and dance, but dates her official introduction to 11 years ago. Since then, she has taught adult African dance classes at the Fort Wayne Dance Collective and Malinké-based dance to TRJE youths ages six to 17.

“Sometimes they get on my nerves, but they’re kids so they’re supposed to,” said Massie. “They make me laugh most of the time and they make me feel like a superstar because of the attention they shower on me even though I just saw them a week ago. They keep me feeling youthful, and remind me of when I was younger and what I went through as a kid.”

One of the challenges Massie said she faces as TRJE’s dance instructor is striking a balance between the varied age and maturity levels.

“They’re all in different developmental stages,” said Massie. “With the little ones, they can learn in a playful way or through stories, but the older ones grow out of that. I have to be very versatile.”

And, versatile she is. In addition to serving as TRJE’s dance instructor, Massie is learning traditional Egyptian bellydancing and tribal fusion bellydance, seeking international and national certification as a fitness trainer in May, and keeping up with her physical therapy studies for the past 18 months at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. As if that weren’t enough, Massie also looks after her 13and 10-year-old sisters—all at the ripe young age of 20.

“Some people my age feel sorry for me, but it’s not like that because my sisters and I are always there for each other,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I wasn’t the oldest sister. They and my job as dance instructor have helped me grow.”

Now firmly into young adulthood, Kenyetta Abdul-Azeez is she formerly is known today, still serves as a dance instructor, expanding to exercise forms including Zumba and an award-winning body builder. She continues to feed her passion for African culture and African art forms as a matter of self-pride and a strong family legacy.

 

Dorothy Nichols

Dorothy Nichols

Gospel vocal program entails more than learning to sing

It’s not a secret that Evangelist Dorothy Nichols has been teaching local youths ages nine to 20 how to sing gospel music through Community Ministry of Fort Wayne Inc./Future Foundation, but few people probably know or understand why Nichols has been doing it for the past 12 years.

“I want kids to be equipped to deal with life,” said Nichols. “On the south side, so many kids are atrisk so I want to spiritually save as many as I can to give them a start in life. I want to see then do well. If they can listen, they can manage.”

The ability to perform gospel music and do it well, said Nichols,

requires a certain decorum of young people. Minimally, they must be able to concentrate, listen and comprehend instructions, but that requires building self-esteem, character and other personal skills. Everything else, she said, is secondary.

“We deal with the whole person when developing gifts and talents,” said Nichols. “I’ve always had a passion for young people so this is real personal to me.”

Nichols said she initially got started when she tried to recruit youth from around the city to sing in a choir during a Martin Luther King Day event in 1998. Teaching young people from different background, schools and neighborhoods how to get along and work together has its moments, but Nichols is digging in for the long haul.

“This is about our young people’s futures,” she said. “Their lifestyle today breaks my heart, especially when I’m try to get them to exemplify a more positive lifestyle. It’s hurtful to me when I see them go in a direction that will be damaging in later years despite everything I put in them that I can and the dreams I

have for them.” But, every cloud has it’s silver

lining and Nichols’ shines when her young vocalists do well, such as being named second runner-up during a Starquest competition at Indianapolis’ RCA Dome or when one of her vocalists was invited to perform during an NAACP ACTSO competition. Nichols added that she is as equally proud of her grandson, Keenan, who heads the Men of Valor gospel group.

“When they use what the Lord has helped me develop, I feel uplifted,” said Nichols. “I love to see them succeed.”

Nichols, however, said she believes part of that success is attributed to the family-like atmosphere she’s created which also includes the participation of group members’ parents.

“I’m involved in every aspect of their lives from birthdays to graduations, whatever,” said Nichols whom the group refers to as “Grandma.” “We’re like extended family. This is not a job to me. This is a passion that I attribute to God.”

Evangelist Dorothy Nichols continues to work with young people as well as other women in the ministry. She currently operates programs out of Renaissance Baptist Church under the leadership of the Rev. Michael Latham.

 

Youth learn how to accept differences in each other

Shirley Woods

Shirley Woods

Thirty-three years ago, 15 neighborhood children gathered in the backyard of the home of Shirley Woods. In the second year of those gatherings, that number grew to 39. Skip ahead today, that number now is 90 to 100 kids each day.

For the past 14 years, “Miss Shirley” has mentored and mothered children at the Euell A. Wilson Center. There, children can take part in a youth ministry, any of the nine freae performance arts programs—piano, martial arts, step,

dance, graphic and visual arts, clothing design, African hair braiding and a recording studio—or participate in character building through the Jewel program for girls or the Onyx program for boys, and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Woods added that a double dutch program will be implemented later this year.

“The center was named for my deceased son,” said Woods. “Even though he wasn’t involved in a gang, I felt compelled to reach out to kids in his name because of the prevalent gang activity here in the early 1990s. I knew kids needed to know they had alternatives.”

The center is a constantly bustling hub of young people, but Woods likens it to “structured, organized chaos.”

“The kids are all so different, but they work together,” said Woods. “I’m really proud of them. We have our challenges, but the kids seem to adhere to guidance. They’re diverse, and they have needs and personalities, so we’ re teaching them to accept the differences in each other. It’s challenging, but it can be done with patience and by keeping a vision of what they can become. Even adults are a work in progress, so we just have good expectations of our kids.”

Shirley Woods continues to change lives through the Euell Wilson Center. The academic prowess of the children who go there to encouragement and guidance was recently demonstrated by a second year in a row stellar at that annual Parks & Recreation Department Black History Bowl. The Euell Wilson team has missed only two questions in two years.

 

Diane Rogers

Diane Rogers

Youth teach the teacher

It’s hard to imagine that the Omotayo African Dance Troupe, formerly the Diane Rogers African Dance Troupe, will celebrate its 25th year anniversary this year, but not if you know a little bit about how Rogers got started.

“I was a fourth-grader at Weisser Park when I joined the Afro Drumming Club there,” she said. “I used to give shows in my backyard for 25 cents. I used the clothesline

to hang different colored sheets for my backdrop.”

Since then, Rogers has taken advantage of every African dance and drumming class or workshop opportunity she could, leading up to the formation of her own group.

“I’ve come a long way, especially since we’re a non-profit now,” said Rogers. “I stood my ground and it was lonely, but it’s to empower the children through creativity. This is a gift from God and through hard work.”

Some of that hard work stems from students who might come from troubled homes, but Rogers is willing to work with her three- to 18-year-olds for however long it takes.

“I’m the creative mama figure, the energy force, a socket they can plug into to be creative, but with guidance,” said Rogers. “These kids don’t have many barriers, so they’re open to learning how to trust, be humble, build relationships with other people, and enjoy their childhood while they can. It works both ways. They’ve taught me how to be an individual and to tap into the purpose of each child that comes into my life. They also keep me young at heart. It’s a real, unconditional exchange.”

Rogers said she’d always dreamed of going to New York, performing in musicals, but gave up that dream to help take care of her siblings. Rogers, a Fort Wayne police officer, is the oldest of 11 children. Additionally, Rogers serves as a foster parent and is legal guardian of an adult relative.

“I’m always in the role of nurturing,” she said. “But, I’m blessed to be able to give the gift of giving. I find that reason enough to celebrate and keep going.”

Diane Omotayo Rogers is still working with Omotayo Rites of Passage, appearing at nearly every major African American cultural event in the city, including the annual Juneteenth Celebration at Weisser Park Community Center. The group has traveled around the country to competitions and showcases including to Atlanta  and Washington, D.C.

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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