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Published: Sunday, 2/28/2010

‘Life has its own lessons'

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

This is the second in a series of profiles of people who have quietly made significant contributions to our community. To suggest someone for a future profile, please contact Ann Weber at 419-724-6126 or aweber@theblade.com.

Growing up, Betty Amison dreamed of becoming a nurse.

Then she worked a summer at a nursing home. A man died, and it terrified her.

Years later, newly divorced and the mother of a little girl, she got a job as a receptionist. But she soon grew restless, still feeling that childhood yearning to help and comfort people.

"Life has its own lessons," Ms. Amison-Lewis reflected recently at Grace Community Center, the central city neighborhood beacon that she co-founded 41 years ago under the auspices of the United Church of Christ. One such lesson is that sometimes it's the negatives that steer your course, more so than the positives.

"It's the things that you don't want that become the strongest motivating factors," she said. "I had a slew of ‘don't wants.'"

Now she has a slew of achievements and awards for community service, evidence that Ms. Amison-Lewis eventually found her way to work she loves — and allows her to help others find their way too.

"I have a great determination that things can be made better," Ms. Amison-Lewis said. "I can help myself to be better, and I can help others to be better."

Ms. Amison-Lewis, right, jokes with collegues Raymond Johnson of AmeriCorps and Mattie McAlister, educational coordinator for Grace Community Center. Ms. Amison-Lewis, right, jokes with collegues Raymond Johnson of AmeriCorps and Mattie McAlister, educational coordinator for Grace Community Center.
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Ray Miller, president of the board of Grace Community Center, described her this way: "She has a tender, kind heart. She loves people, she loves to help people, she has a heart for helping people to improve their situation."

But she's no marshmallow.

"She works hard and long, and she's tough," said Delores Williams, a social services colleague in Toledo. "She's not one to get her feathers ruffled easily, even when she's doing some strong advocacy and someone says no. The Betty I know doesn't take ‘no' for an answer."

The community activist, now 67, can look back on a list of accomplishments that includes organizing Toledo's first rent strike, helping Fulton School families persuade Toledo Public Schools to stop busing their children and instead open the Collingwood Learning Center to ease overcrowding, and advocating for a school lunch program.

At Grace Community Center, she increased and stabilized agency funding, expanded programming, and led a capital campaign to buy land and construct the center building at 406 West Delaware Ave. It offers GED classes, computer classes, a preschool program, information and referral services, vision screening and eyeglasses, after-school tutoring, recreation, and more.

In the surrounding neighborhood — which for 36 years has been her neighborhood as well — she led the now-defunct Toledo Olde Towne Community Organization and has been active in preserving housing stock. She also played a central role in Toledo's successful campaign to become an All-America City in 1998, and was involved in creation of the Art Tatum African-American Resource Center in the Kent Branch Library.

"I'm a problem-solver," Ms. Amison-Lewis declared. "As a result of that I don't see anything that is too big for me to come against. I think I have the will and the drive and determination to do it, but I also accept the things I can't change."

One of those was the death of her mother, Alberta, in 1974, when her mom was just 54.

"I have a lot of her gumption," Ms. Amison-Lewis said. "I'm the modern-day Alberta. ... She had a lot of spunk about her."

The fourth of 13 children, Ms. Amison-Lewis was 2 when the family moved from Alabama to Toledo. She graduated from Scott High School and got married when she was 19.

"I did three years of marriage. It was a marriage that parents warned you about," she admitted.

Divorced, without skills or work, she went to Stautzenberger College on a grant. After graduating she got a job at the Northwest Opportunity Center of EOPA, which was running the federal War on Poverty program. Dissatisfied as a secretary, she asked to attend training sessions for community organizers.

That led her to what became Grace Community Center, which was then being formed as a mission project of United Church of Christ.

Later, Ms. Amison-Lewis earned a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Toledo.

Her experience as a single mother has helped her guide others who are now in those shoes. "I think I'm proudest most of the things I do with women and families — helping women to recognize their potential, helping them set goals and reach them, and overcome poverty," she said.

But make no mistake — she's not going to do it for them.

"If I solve a problem for you today, tomorrow if you have another problem you're not going to be able to solve it. But if I show you how and make you successful at solving this problem, and I walk with you and make sure you know I'm there to be supportive, then you can get this person to believe in themselves, and that they can overcome," she said.

Natalie Wells, a former community center employee who considers Ms. Amison-Lewis her mentor, said that, "Sometimes I have struggled with what I want to do in life, so we'll sit down and talk about it and she'll give me some real good feedback."

"She is easy to talk to, and she's not afraid to voice her opinion," added Miss Wells, who graduated from Owens Community College in December and is now a student at Lourdes College.

Ms. Amison-Lewis has been married to Morris Lewis, an executive recruiter, since August, 1990. Between them they have five adult children and nine grandchildren.

Outside of work, one of her greatest pleasures is to head home on a Friday evening and not come out until Monday morning. "I feel sometimes in my job I'm so overly exposed that not saying anything and not doing anything is probably the best recreation I can get," she explained.

A weekend cook, she also likes to listen to music, tackle decorating projects, work crossword puzzles, relax in front of the fireplace, and entertain family.

"We like spending time together, my husband, and I," Ms. Amison-Lewis added.

There's someone else she hangs out with too.

"I have not given up my inner child," she said.

"I'm serious about a lot of things and I take what I do very seriously, but I don't take me serious at all," Ms. Amison-Lewis continued. "It's better to be kind of lighthearted and see things through a kid's eyes sometimes and not get rattled about everyday events."

Every day brings something new, she pointed out, "and I'm always excited about it. Just being alive is exciting."

The problem solver also sees playfulness as a tool.

"I think that we get better solutions when we're not so serous about things, you know?"

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com

or 419-724-6126.



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