I entered the Lowell Milken Center to begin my week as a 2015 Unsung Heroes Fellow feeling a bit unsure as to the best way to contribute to the program. Would I be at a disadvantage since I wasn’t a history teacher? How would I go about finding my unsung hero? Every teacher in my group seemed to be making progress, but my Internet searches were producing nothing.
Fast forward five weeks. There I was sitting at the kitchen table of Bess Gamble-Williams. Bess is the daughter of the late Patsy Gamble-Oliver. Patsy Oliver, I learned right before leaving the Lowell Milken Center, had fought a big company and local government to clean the toxic waste from her neighborhood. She has a fascinating story, and her work saved the lives of countless citizens.
Bess has collected the stories about her mother’s work, and I was so grateful to have the opportunity to have a brief glimpse into the life of someone who dedicated so much of her time and energy to the health and lives of others. She had placed family photos and memorabilia on her kitchen table for me to look through. She even had a couple videos of close friends talking about Patsy Oliver’s impact on the community. Through those words, I was able to see the respect that she garnered through her environmental work. Patsy never set out to lead an environmental movement. However, she led it. Bess told me about a time she was severely ill as a child and left with scars all over her body. She thought that her desire to be a model was futile, but her mother Patsy told her that she could be whatever she wanted to be. Therefore, Bess modeled.
Patsy Oliver was smart, compassionate, and feisty. There were snippets of those characteristics all over the table. Those values now live in Bess Gamble-Williams who is following in her mother’s steps of improving the community. Bess has started T.A.B. (Taking Action against Bullying), and she works with organizations to educate young people, improve their self-esteem, and prevent bullying.
Through her activism, Patsy Oliver saved the lives of many in her community. Through the life she led, she taught her daughter about service.
When I got back to my car, I thought about the way that I began the Lowell-Milken Center Fellowship—uncertain of the impact I could make. I thought about my students who have yet to realize that, even at their young age, they can make a positive impact on their community. I thought about Patsy Oliver, who moved into her neighborhood in 1964 not realizing that she would be the driving force in stopping a company from dumping toxic waste there.
I cannot wait to introduce my students to Patsy Gamble-Oliver this fall. As they research her life and work, she is going to teach them so much about their own power and ability to improve their community.
This is what happens at the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes. Students work together to discover heroes. They work together to discover the value of service. Then, like Bess Gamble-Williams, and the family and friends of Patsy Oliver, those students have a new vision and see themselves as important, positive, and powerful members of the communities in which they reside.