It doesn’t take long for Gloria Crowder to lure a person into helping — she will ask anyone, at any time, to share their gifts with the community.
“I remember the first time I met her... and she immediately drew me in. ‘Oh, you do this and that, would you be interested in helping with our Martin Luther King celebration?’” recalled Lynn Clapp, who nominated Crowder for honors from the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce.
Crowder, 65, took home the 2016 Citizen of the Year award on Jan. 27 after a dinner and silent auction at Fischer’s Restaurant in Belleville. It is the third year the honor has been presented, said Wendy Pfeil, executive director of the chamber. Al Wunderlich, who co-founded the Franklin Neighborhood Community Association, and Carol Bartle, a volunteer for many metro-east organizations, were previous honorees.
I think she would tell you she is just an ordinary citizen like everybody else. But ordinary citizens have the ability to make a difference, just like anyone else.
Matt Klosterman, superintendent of Belleville School District 118
Clapp, a consultant with Vertical Performance and a former Belleville District 118 assistant superintendent, said he did, indeed, moderate that Martin Luther King celebration.
“It’s hard to say no to Gloria,” he said, adding that the leader of the 17th Street Corridor Neighborhood Association has a joyfulness that makes “everyone feel that they’re the teacher’s pet.”
The 17th Street association offers several avenues to increase community engagement through summer camps, educational and entrepreneurial programs, recycling programs and more. It operates Bellevinity, a youth group which partly connects those in need with resources, and Wings of Hope, a program to help girls reach their full potential. Crowder said she hopes to soon add a similar program for boys.
The things Crowder has done through the association focus on children and improving the bonds of community. It’s her mission straight from God, she says.
“I have seen her do things that are just nuts, anybody else would say is impossible in this day and age,” says Darrell Coons, former director of the Belleville Achieves Strength in Character Initiative and now a fire department chaplain with Belleville and other metro-east departments.
Matt Klosterman, superintendent of Belleville District 118, says he has “nothing but respect” for Crowder and her work with the district’s school children. This year, the association’s summer camp will be at Jefferson School.
“I think she would tell you she is just an ordinary citizen like everybody else. But ordinary citizens have the ability to make a difference, just like anyone else,” Klosterman said.
Crowder, a Tennessee native who moved around the country following her Air Force husband’s career, says running the 501(c)3 charity, with the summer camp, Bellevinity and Wings of Hope programs, is hard work. But Crowder happily adopted the summer camp program as her own, after the program’s founder, Pastor Michelle Parsons Leaverton, left Westminster Presbyterian Church and the programs she and her late husband, Shon Parsons, had started there.
Leaverton said it was hard to leave the program the church had started after her husband died. But she knew she was leaving it in the care of people who would help it grow into a community phenomenon.
“It got out of my hands before I even knew what was going on; and it was awesome,” Leaverton said by phone from her Des Moines, Iowa, home.
An association for the community
Crowder’s own three children are grown, and her husband, Samuel, 67, keeps busy with his own things, she says. He does help with photography and at association events, she said proudly.
Her oldest daughter, Angie Brown, 46, had children at the Westminster Presbyterian Church’s summer camp before the 17th Street Corridor Neighborhood Association was a thing. Son Christopher, 43, is a child advocate in Indianapolis, and son Ima, 39, is an EMT in St. Louis.
It was Brown who initially introduced Leaverton to her mother when Shon Parsons became ill and the demands of family and work started to overwhelm Leaverton.
Leaverton said Brown told her, “’Well, you know the person you have to have is my mother.’”
“The second I met her, she is just a ball of energy and she completely embraced the vision and what Shon and I had been thinking,” Leaverton said
What they had been thinking was a community-run program for that same community.
“The camp was really the beginning of the neighborhood association,” Leaverton said. “We kept seeing all these other needs that weren’t being served.”
Serving those needs is now in Crowder’s hands, although she is quick to point to others who help.
She’s always looking for what she can grab onto that is positive … always trying to build everybody else up.
Darrell Coons, former director of the Belleville Achieves Strength in Character Initiative
“It’s (getting) grant funding, and going out selling the program,” Crowder said. “The summer camp speaks for itself.”
That summer camp has served as many as 160 students, although this year will likely have about 120, Crowder said. It started in 2009 with less than 30 children.
“Our kids are mainly under-served and at risk,” she said, citing single-parent homes and financial stresses. “There are parents who can afford the YMCA and Camp Quackers — these are the others.” Camp Quackers is a summer camp program offered by the Belleville Parks and Recreation Department.
The 17th Street association’s summer camp program is three weeks in June and three weeks in July, and is $65 per camper, per month. Crowder says the campers all take part in a tutoring program with literacy and science. They are fed breakfast and lunch.
The cost of the program — even with paying only half of the stipend for AmeriCorps volunteers, even with the free site courtesy of Belleville District 118 schools, and even with food provided by the USDA program — will still be about $20,000.
In the last couple of years, major funding sources have been reduced. It’ll work out, Crowder says.
“She’s never down about anything,” Coons says. “There was a time a couple years ago as director of BASIC initiative we couldn’t provide as much funding (for the camp), and she said, ‘that’s OK.’”
“She’s always looking for what she can grab onto that is positive … always trying to build everybody else up.”
Leaverton, who is busy as a stay-at-home mom with four children from 9 to 17, is happy the church program has grown to embrace the community —something she said she and her husband had hoped.
“It’s still going because of Gloria and her energy and her love of the community.”