BOSTON — THROUGH her free hot meals Thursday nights, her day shelter for the homeless, her regular visits to prisoners and shut-ins, or just her simple words of encouragement to the down and out, the Rev. Nellie Yarborough is there for those in need.
Here in a poor section of Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood, Reverend Yarborough is pastor of the Pentecostal Mt. Calvary Holy Church and a constant witness to the rigors of inner-city life: violence, drugs, prostitution, poverty, and homelessness.
But "Mama Nellie," as she is known here, helps to bring fresh hope to those around her.
"You can make life as attractive as you want it to be," she says. "And you can only do that if you know life is attractive."
As a result of her community work, Yarborough has been recognized nationally by the Giraffe Project, a Langley, Wash.-based nonprofit group that tracks people who show courage and vision in community service work. [See accompanying story.]
Mama Nellie's church sits on a side street off Blue Hill Avenue, a major thoroughfare where gangs and drug dealers often gather. Buildings show signs of blight, and Yarborough's church is no exception. Translucent colored paper taped to the window panes is all she has for stained glass.
Despite the outside drawbacks of this inner-city neighborhood, this motherly African-American woman seems to have found her niche. She is probably best known here for her weekly hot-meal program, a service she has provided for the past 31 years. Every Thursday, the church welcomes approximately 100 to 150 homeless and hungry people.
Restaurant and food-market owners in the area helped Yarborough start the feeding program.
"They would save the soup bones so I could make soup, and vegetables where they had a little bit of this and a little dab of that," she recalls.
"And that's how I really got into feeding."
City leaders are very familiar with her community work.
"I've known Reverend Nellie Yarborough for a number of years and she has a very active ministry," says City Councilor At Large Bruce Bolling.
"She's done extraordinary work in feeding the homeless in our community, and - I might add - completely on volunteer resources."
The daughter of a teacher and minister, Yarborough finished high school when she was 14 in rural North Carolina. In 1956 she moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where she became an ordained minister in the Pentecostal church. She moved to Boston in 1959 and three years later became pastor at the Mount Calvary Church. Education a key aim
Throughout her life, education has been been a priority. Last fall, after years of hard work, she realized her dream of opening the Dr. Brumfield Johnson Academy. The school has classes from kindergarten through fifth grade. In September, grades six through 12 will be added. She also runs an after-school day care program and hopes to start an adult-literacy program.
"We bought this building with the intention of putting schools here, and it took us 30 years to do that. Thirty long years!" she says, echoing her words in disbelief.
To help fund the school, Yarborough has declined to take her salary, surviving instead on a small stipend. And in the last 2-1/2 years, she has not even taken the stipend.
Yarborough hopes to make a difference in the lives of the community's young people. Even if she can't persuade the neighborhood prostitutes to pack up and go home (and she's tried), she has touched the lives of many others here.
Ann Marie Grant, a church volunteer, says that she first met Yarborough when she was in seventh grade. Now a young woman, Ms. Grant still looks up to Yarborough as a "positive role model."
"She teaches you to set your goals high and to reach the goals you want to make, to broaden your goals," Grant says. "Because you never know until you try."
Another project on Yarborough's long list of community activities is her neighborhood beautification program. She and other residents have been busy planting trees, flowers, and bushes along Blue Hill Avenue. This year she hopes to plant some fruit trees. Better since the '68 riots
But if the neighborhood still shows its rough edges, its appearance has improved since riots broke out after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, Yarborough notes.
"This neighborhood was just bombed and bombed - destroyed," she recalls. "We have worked to try to bring it back. We haven't gotten there yet, but we are working."
Of all the community problems she encounters, the most disheartening to her is drug addiction. Her hope is to start a program for substance abusers who, after treatment, will live in a special home that will ease their transition back into society.
"People don't want to be on drugs," she says. "A lot of them don't. But they don't see anything else. And if they go in and come out in the same environment, there's no motivation to help them stay off, because people will offer you drugs the way the offer you a cup of coffee. Isn't that sad?"
Along with such tough challenges come the rewards of her work. To experience those rich moments is "to see people become whole," she says, "to see families united together, to see people able to make it together on their own with the security of jobs ... in their own homes and living together harmoniously as families."
In many ways, her work has paid off, she says. Though crime hasn't lessened dramatically, she says she feels safer and no longer carries a stout wooden stick when she walks the streets. More police officers are patrolling the area than in years past.
She says she has earned a place in the neighborhood through her many programs and community work.
"People sort of respect that," she says - the fact that "you're not doing it for yourself and you're doing it for them."