Lillie Turner and Zelda Thomas come from different backgrounds, but they are on a mission together to help inner-city children develop positive life skills by providing guidance, exposure to rewarding experiences and encouraging artistic expression.
Through a new organization, Angels of Praise Community Outreach, Turner and Thomas are mentoring boys and girls from ages 4 to 16 to help the children become productive adults — adults with a future.
The two women met at St. Mary Baptist Church, where Turner was working with Angels of Praise Dance Ministry, a dance team for young girls.
“I enrolled my granddaughter in 2011,” Thomas said. “I started helping Lillie making sure the girls got to rehearsals.”
In March, to expand their outreach to children in other churches, the women formed their own nonprofit and recently set up shop in a building on Hollywood Street.
“We are no longer just a dance ministry, but it is a part of our ministry,” Thomas said.
Children from different neighborhoods are welcome to participate, but the group is targeting the 70805 ZIP code area. “It’s a low property (value), high crime area,” Turner said.
Because violence is prevalent in so many parts of the 70805 area, the children become desensitized to it, Turner said.
“We have to show them what’s different,” she said.
The women are working to incorporate academic tutoring, artistic expression, mentoring programs and seminars and workshops into their program. They want to help the children learn such life skills as anger management, conflict resolution and money management.
Although the dance ministry, led by instructor Winter McCray, is still the most developed part of the community outreach, Turner and Thomas are working hard to expand their work. “We are in the process of collaborating with students from Baton Rouge (Magnet) High and Southern University and some retired and current educators,” Thomas said. “They are going to help us get our tutoring program started.”
The program’s first major outing was a sleepover for 25 young girls at the beginning of the summer. “We rented three suites at a local hotel,” Turner said.
The first suite was set up as a spa, where the girls had manicures and pedicures. “Someone came in to show the girls how to take care of their skin,” Thomas said. “We talked about personal hygiene.”
A second suite was set up for arts and crafts, where the girls decorated bags for their dance shoes.
In the third suite, they had a storytelling rap session and games that incorporated a speech therapist. “She corrected them in their use of language and grammar,” Thomas said. There was also a session on bullying.
Turner and Thomas have worked with the children to raise funds for the program. They have had candy sales and garage sales and have received some community donations.
One of the outreach program’s greatest assets is Myisha Joseph, a licensed social worker.
“She advises us on what topics we are going to bring in,” Thomas said. “In certain situations, we go to her on how to approach the children and the parents.”
Turner grew up in a difficult situation, but she was able to turn her life around and become a successful woman.
“I was sexually abused and physically abused,” she said. “That’s why I have such a passion for the children. My heart goes out to them in these homes where there is so much abuse. It’s like seeing my life all over again.”
Turner’s first job was busing tables at Giamanco’s on Government Street. She was about 16. When the broiler cook didn’t show up one day, Turner was promoted.
In 1989, she went to work for Carolyn Carnahan and her family, who had Woodfin-Smith, a local Pontiac-Isuzu dealership.
Every afternoon, Turner went to the dealership, where she made cookies, handled special events and employee celebrations and helped out in different departments. Before long, she was a crackerjack salesperson selling cars in the showroom.
Her son’s Boy Scout troop lost its leader and couldn’t find a replacement. Turner volunteered to take the position, but the local Scout director told her that women were not allowed as leaders. She told him, “You said you don’t have anyone else.”
“She was the first woman in the South to become a Scoutmaster,” said Carolyn Carnahan, who is a sponsor and on the advisory board of Angels of Praise Community Outreach. “If a need is there and she feels the cause, she goes there.”
Turner even coached her own Boy Scout baseball team. “We were undefeated,” she said.
Even today, her former Scouts and baseball players come back to visit.
Thomas’ background is completely different. Her father was a pastor.
“My grandparents did a lot of community service,” she said. “If you knew that you were a pastor’s kid, you knew that service was a part of your life.”
She works for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. Over the years, she has worked with women helping them to become independent and off welfare.
The two women are a devoted team.
“Miss Lillie has the energy,” Thomas said. “She makes the Energizer Bunny tired. It’s good to be connected with someone who has the passion.”
Even though they started the project working with young girls, they see the family as their mission. “It’s not just the children,” Thomas said. “Part of the goal is reaching the whole family.”
They know the need is huge, but they want to help. Turner said she is about to “hit the streets” to get as many children as she can to participate. “There are tons of children in the area. They are going to come,” she said. “There are so many children not overcoming the situation they are in. We are not going to make a difference in all of their lives, but we can make a difference in some.”
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