SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Mother’s Day is not just a day to honor biological mothers; it can be a moment to appreciate any woman who took time to help raise someone.
On May 2, the Community Coalition dedicated its youth center to county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ late grandmother, Sylvia Thomas.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony, recognized not only Thomas, but current relative caregivers, which the organization believes are the unsung heroes of the community.
The Sylvia Thomas Youth Center has the latest computers and technology, which will be used for tutoring, homework and college workshops.
Sylvia Thomas became the supervisor’s guardian after his mother passed away from breast cancer, when he was 9. Ridley-Thomas credits her for all his accomplishments.
Calling her “The grand old lady,” Ridley-Thomas recalled one night when he was studying anatomy and physiology.
“She sat next to me and said ‘Mark, I can’t help you study, but I can sit right here and encourage you.’ She did just that. And if I’ve accomplished anything educational and gone the distance, I was fundamentally persuaded from that single event,” Ridley-Thomas said.
It wasn’t the first time Sylvia Thomas has been recognized. She was also honored in 1997, when the nonprofit organization first moved into the city-owned building at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and 81st Street.
Last year, the headquarters reopened its doors after a complete renovation. When they spoke to Ridley-Thomas about wanting to honor him and his contributions, he immediately wanted his grandmother to be recognized instead.
“Never labor on the impression you can make it on your own, somebody did something for you to get you to be who you are,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Never, ever linger on the illusion that you’re all that because you showed up with what you have now. Somebody blessed you and took the time to invest in you and that is simply my story.”
In addition to the dedication, members of the coalition also hosted their caregivers with a pre-Mother’s Day dinner, honoring women who stepped in to care for the children when their parents could not.
Community Coalition leader and relative caregiver Sharon Webb told her story during the dinner. She was one of the women given a certificate for her contributions.
“My granddaughter picked out my clothes; I feel so good,” Webb said. “It’s not just me being honored it’s all of us. All of us do the work. We lean on each other. I’ve seen the supervisor’s name [Ridley-Thomas] all over the place, but to actually get to meet him and learn about his family; it’s like wow.”
Webb lived in Lancaster, but gave up her job after she was taking so much time off to take care of the kids. Due to circumstances, she decided to move into her mother’s home in Los Angeles. Eventually, Webb was told to take her grandchildren to the police department, but she refused.
She had no idea the Community Coalition existed until her doctor mentioned it. Desperate for help, she decided to give it a try.
“When I first came here, my intention was not to get involved and next thing I know I’ve been here over five years and looking forward to coming every Monday,” she said. “It gives me a break and I can vent with other caregivers. The children are safe with child care, so I don’t have to worry. We are more family than just friends. We have to help each other.”
The Community Coalition came to be as a response to the crack cocaine epidemic that hit South Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s. One of its main concerns is helping families; as a result of the war on drugs many children got separated from their parents. The relatives who took custody of the children had little support.
The coalition joined caregivers in obtaining better resources, awareness and support locally and statewide.
Relative caregiver Debra Lee has been a part of the coalition since 1998. It not only helps her 8-year-old granddaughter grow, but also herself.
“That’s beautiful what they’re doing today,” she said. “This is always what I wanted. Relative caregivers, most of the time, we do this stuff and we don’t ask for anything. I didn’t even know we could get any benefits.
“It taught me public speaking, leadership skills and navigating the different systems,” she added. “I want to get the new caregivers as excited as I am. Our work is still not done, there is so much still to do.”