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Full text of "An oral history of women leaders of Memphis : interview with Sister Elizabeth Bonia, June 4, 1979 / by Eleanor McKay"

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JUNE 4, 1979 




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I hereby release all right, title, or interest in and 
to all of ray tape-recorded memo irs to the Mississippi Valley 
Archives of the John Willard Brister Library of Memphis 
State University and declare that they may be used without 
any restriction whatsoever and may be copyrighted and pub- 
lished by the said Archives, which also may assign said 
copyright and publication rights to serious research 
scholars • 

PLACE Memphl ' S ' TN 

~„™„ of interview, 4 June 1979 




(^(t4i^r^ K ^ 

(For the Mississippi Valley Archives 
of the John Willard Brister Library 
of Memphis State University) 


McKay: Sister, would you like to give us some information about 

your own personal history? 
BONIA: I'm a Marist Missionary Sister. I have worked six 

years in the Leprosarium in the West Indies. There's a 
trend today for missionaries to return to their own country and take a look 
at areas that need redevelopment, and that's why I'm here in Memphis. I 
live here with four other sisters who are involved in the community in 
different capacities: one as a nurse practitioner with children and youth; 
one as a home intervention specialist with midtown Mental Health Center; 
one as a senior citizen 77 years of age, working in Project MACE with the 
United Methodist Center as a volunteer; and another volunteer, a 70-year 
old sister, works at St. Peter's high rise, and she's a pastoral visitor. 
So that makes the family of five who live here and work together pretty 
much different people. 
McKAY: Do you want to talk some about the origins of Code North? 

Did you start it? 

BONIA: Basically, yes. Code North started back in 1976. It was 

really initiated by the Parish Council of Holy Name Church. 
At that time, this area was not included in the Community Development block 
grant funds for improvements. So the people of the parish felt a moral 
responsibility to reach out to the people in the area and try to help 
them turn around the neighborhood so that it could be included in future 
funding. And they felt that very little effort had been taken on the part 
of the people to really be included the last time of funding. So they 
felt that some type of organization was necessary. In April, 1976, 
while this was being discussed at the Parish Council, I was visiting 
Memphis, and I was asked to take on the job as director. And, at the 
time they had no funding, and I wasn't doing anything in particular, so 
I took it on as a voluntary assignment, to work with it for six months, 
with the intention of returning to Massachusetts, should I not be able to 
get funding to keep the program growing. 

By the end of six months, I had a $50,000 grant from the Campaign 
for Human Development. In the meantime, before the funds came through, 
I had a lot of time on my hands to try to get a profile of the agencies 
in Memphis, and to try to assess the actual needs of the people in the 
impoverished area. Memphis State University was very responsive in 
providing the kinds of technical assistance we needed. My first move 
was to do a needs assessment — Phil Mummert and Stan Hyland. 
McKAY: Hyland? 

BONIA: Hyland? 

BONIA: Hyland assisted with thirteen of our local residents in 

drawing up an instrument. And then they provided a 
number of training sessions to instruct the local residents how to administer 
the questionnaire. And then they came hack later and told us how to 
compile this data, and how to measure it. So, the results of this assess- 
ment kind of helped us get our priorities, and we found that 55% of our 
young people were school dropouts; 70% of the houses were in need of repair; 
a large number of elderly people were on the "verge of going to nursing 
homes, and yet they themselves felt that all they needed were a few support 
services. Most families we interviewed had one or two or three unemployed 
people in the house who were willing, and wanted to work, but they had no 
specific skill. So we set as our priority to develop a neighborhood workshop 
with a lending library of tools so that we could help people help them- 
selves . We also decided to respond to the needs of the elderly and try 
to set up some type of tenant-managed elderly housing. Those were two 
priorities . 

Now, the $50,000 had not come in as yet. So what we tried to do, 
then, was resolve the projects. We looked at vacant structures in the 
poverty area. One was a carriage house, which we thought would be ap- 
propriate for the workshop and lending library of tools . The other was 
a nine-apartment building which we thought would be suitable for tenant 
housing. And they were both owned by the Catholic diocese. So we went 
to the Bishop, and he was willing to give them both to us for a dollar a 
year, on a lease basis, so that we could really get started and test our' 
program. But both houses were in need of rehabilitation. So I went a- 

round and spoke with, different civic groups, church groups, the Peace and 
Justice Commission. And as a result, I got the Jaycees to take on the el- 
derly housing for their 1976 civic project. They supplied the materials 
and provided the labor to bring that housing to code. The neighborhood 
"workshop was sponsored by Mr. Mahoney, who works for Cambridge Lee, and 
who is also a member of the Peace and Justice Commission. He sponsored 
three local people. He paid their salary while the carriage house was 
being restored. He bought the materials, and he and his son worked on, 
for about three months , teaching them how to paint , how to put on shingles , 
how to cut grass. And so by the time the workshop was finished, the three 
young people which he sponsored had requests from six families in the neigh- 
borhood to go out and paint their houses. So immediately, those three 
people were on their own. Mr. Mahoney was "off the hook" and we had a 
neighborhood workshop. 

It was at that time that our visibility was coming through. We had 
no - money, and we had done a lot of things with the local people. And 
we were building up a sense of pride. Young people were saying, "Hey, 
I helped build that workshop." Might have been a fourteen-year-old kid 
who just painted the front door. But there was a sense of ownership, a 
sense of, "It's ours; I helped build it." We tried to instill that as 
they did the work. If you notice the inside, you'll notice that the floor 
is a little bit uneven, and the doors are a little bit patched. We took 
old doors' we went around like scavengers looking for materials that we 
could get donated, and very often, it was old material. But those young 

people who came to work, for us in 1976, when they come "back now;, they say, 
"Hey, did I do that?" But we leave it there "because it "was done "by them. And 
it's a sign that they've come from there to now "being ahle to do professional 
work. The first man who was hired in carpentry is now working for a general 
contractor on a full-time basis. He came to work with us through the work- 
release program at the penal farm. He is now working on his own home through 
sweat equity, a house which Community Development let us have when they had 
to clear an area over on Tillman to extend a playground. So that the only 
cost we had was moving it from Tillman into North Memphis and putting up a 
foundation. This young man now is skilled enough to take that on himself. 
And hopefully he'll be able to move in there within the next three months. 

And the other person who Mr. Mahoney sponsored is now in college, and 
in his third year. And the third person is the person I mentioned earlier 
who has moved from a minimum wage up to a para-professional salary, and who 
purchased a house from us last month for a thousand dollars. That was a 
house that was left to us by a senior citizen who liked what we were doing 
for senior citizens, and he was moving to a high-rise. So the family let 
us have the house just for paying some back taxes and insurance, so that 
we were able to turn that house then over to a local person who had some 
skills in doing rehab herself. And she is one of the woman leaders who 
has come through the Code Worth program. 
McKAY: What's her name? 

BONIA: iMiss] Charlie Holt. I'd like to talk a little about 

the elderly housing. As I mentioned before, we had the 

house that was given to us on a lease basis by the Catholic diocese, and 
the commitment from the Jaycees to do the rehab. The real problem was trying 
to find some "way of financing the housing so that elderly people could come 
in and receive the support services they needed, but also that it wouldn't 
cost them all of their Social Security check. So it took a lot of trans- 
acting; it took a number of trips to Washington, speaking with the Senate 
Committee on Aging and the House Committee on Aging, Congressman Ford, the 
National Council of Senior Citizens, to really get them to realize that what 
we were doing was unique, and that it could be done, and that older people 
didn't always need to go to nursing homes before that level of care was 
needed, that congregate housing was feasible and was not too costly, but 
that we did need some types of financing. What we had in mind at the time 
was rental assistance. We thought that if we could set up a big sitting 
room for each tenant coming in there, and have them qualify for rental as- 
sistance, they could support themselves and be rather independent in terms 
of managing, s elf- management . It took a year for us to get the different 
components together to make the house work. Those components are rental 
assistance 5 food stamps, transportation, health clinics to get a profile, 
health profile and help with; the initial screening to help determine 
the level of care before they come in, and a homemaker. We were able to 
get the homemaker through the WIN program initially, and then later on that 
was taken over by the CETA, work experience slot. Transportation from Easter 
Seal and Code North staff. The rental assistance, which is administered 
by the Housing Authority, was approved, and they qualify for food stamps 

because they.-. are, they do have their own small apartments set up there. 

McKAY: Who does the health care? 

BONIA: North Memphis Community Clinic. Basically, it's an initial 

interview, and they serve on the screening committee. Now 
it may happen, and it has happened, that when referrals come from another 
hospital or another clinic, they will do the follow-up. For example, we 
have two clients there who are on a kidney dialysis machine three days a 
week, so they are followed by University of Tennessee hospital. We have 
one lady who has chosen to be followed by her own private doctor, so they 
have those choices. But the other ten there are followed by the Clinic. 
So that is functioning well. We have a staff person who meets with them 
once a week. They sit down and have a meeting in terms of what we need to 
do in terms of: is there any repair that's in need; is there anything you 
need for the house in terms of equipment. They also, at that time, write 
up their menu and their shopping list. And it's a selective menu. They 

usually have two meats on the menu or, depending on choices we try to keep 

it simple because it's a small group but in the meantime, they write the 

menu, and any shopping is done from the menu. That puts a certain control 

in there too, in terms of not wasting food. 

McKay: So Code North does the shopping for them? 

BONIA: Yes. They go shopping with a Code North staff person, those 

who want to go. The men don't usually care for shopping. 
The ladies like to go. One of the good things that has resulted from the 
congregate housing is that, within two years, three people have moved back 

into independent liying. And what we have found is that many people coming 
in are suffering from malnutrition, "because when they live alone, they're 
not concerned about nourishment or proper diet. So they tend to do the easy 
thing-open a can. And naturally when they feel better, they want to do more 
things. We encourage them to go out and do their own shopping. And after 
a while they realize that, "I'm doing more here than I did when I was in 
my own apartment." They tend to want to go back again into independent liv- 
ing, after they feel better. We've also taken people in there in emergency 
shelter and helped them with their problems, whatever they may be. One 
instance was a mentally retarded man who had a drinking problem. We took 
him in emergency shelter, finally got him into Harbor House where he got 
counseling, and now he has moved into an effiency at St. Peter's high-rise, 
and he's still getting counseling and going to AA meetings. So we see it as 
transition. Now we have opened another house, our model home. We're now 
using it also as a transition house. We have a lady who came into our elderly 
housing. She had been termed "mentally incompetent." Her check was going 
to her cousin in Mississippi, and one day she questioned as to "why is it 
that everyone else here gets her own check, but I don't get mine?" So we 
questioned it too, looked into her history, found that she was married 
at the age of fourteen to a much older man who took care of the finances. 
She's never had an opportunity to manage money. And so we put her in charge 
of the emergency shopping. Within six months, she was doing all of the shop- 
ping, and we were able to have that reversed so that she then started getting 
her own checks. And within another six months she paid out $1,000 for a 

"beautiful antique "bedroom suite. And, you know, just to show how well she 

can manage her own money, this year, she took a vacation with some friends 

in Jackson, Mississippi, and she's planning a trip to Chicago, where she has 

a "brother. 

McKay: Must make you feel good. 

BONIA: It makes me feel good, and actually she's managing her 

money "better than anyone else. But just giving someone 
an opportunity that they didn't have before to develop. She is now think- 
ing of independent living, and she is now. . . we are setting her up in a 
room in our model home, where she is trying out independent living. See, 
we have a program there. She's aware of that. And she's staying alone at 
night just to see, "Will I be comfortable with this?" She still has a room 
over at the elderly housing. So this is sort of a transition. This is how 
we see using the model home, as a transition house for someone who may be 
a little hesitant, but may want to just try independent living. 
McKAY: Do you want to go back to the workshop? 

BONIA: Yes. 

McKAY: You don't have to do it in chronological order. 

BONIA: Yes. Possibly you can kind of piece it together, later. 

McKay; Yes. 

BONIA: I think, with the workshop and the elderly housing, that 

really gave us visibility. You know, people were ready 
then to write a story, when we had the workshop finished and when we had the 
elderly people in housing. And one of the reasons we couldn't get adequate 


coverage before say, our elderly housing was finished, was that I was told 
by the reporters that I didn't have a program. I didn't want a program. be- 
cause I didn't want it to be my program. I wanted the program to be designed 
by the elderly people who would move in there. Now, elderly people are as 
unique as any other group of people. And they have their own ideas about 
what kind of program they want. And I just wanted to allow that to happen. 
So we went without the coverage until the people got in there. So then we 
got some really good coverage on what we were able to accomplish. Then the 
reporters were able to go in and interview the residents. 

So right at this point, with this good coverage, we got our $50,000 
grant from the Campaign for Human Development. And we decided to set it 
up with a lending library of tools so that we could help with skills train- 
ing but also help people and encourage them to do their own minor home repair, 
where they could come and borrow a saw or a hammer or a ladder. And we could 
send somebody out to supervise the work they would do in their own homes. 

Based on our track record the first year, we were funded again a second 
year for $6l,000, also from the Campaign for Human Development. And this time 
we decided to set up an advocacy program and a revolving fund. And this is 
where we felt the need to get out into the neighborhood and work with people. 
And our focus there was to try to have this area designated as a priority 
area by Community Development. So we felt the need to get out there and knock 
on doors, all of the doors, talk with the people, let them know what was 
happening with Community Development funds at City Hall, to try to make them 


visible neighborhood people who would actually go to meetings at City Hall, 
at Community Development, and just to try to get them to make a personal com- 
mitment in terms of, "Yes, I am interested in this neighborhood. I want to 
live here; I want to see the neighborhood improve; I want to get involved." 
So, our second year of funding enabled us to bring on another professional 
staff person, and it gave us funds for skills training and work shop supplies, 
We also had an outreach program to the elderly who perhaps did not feel se- 
cure and needed more secure locks on their doors, that type thing. 

During this program year, we applied for CETA Title VI funds, because 
at the Campaign for Human Development, it's very seldom that they fund a 
second year. But we felt that we did need another year of funding to get 
us kind of established locally. And so we knew that there would be some 
overlapping. So we did write a proposal, a Title VI Proposal, to provide 
instructors to teach the various skills. 

Also, around this same time, there were funds available through Com- 
munity Development to set up a pre-apprenticeship program for economically 
disadvantaged youths. We wrote a proposal for that, but it was turned down 
by the City Council. They said it had to go out on open bid. We applied 
to see if we were — could become — MARCH contractors. And we were accepted. 
And we had to take out additional insurance, and we already had been sub- 
contracting for some jobs in some of the Code North houses. So we picked 
up one of the bids and got the contract. And so then we started the pre- 
apprenticeship program. What we found out as this program started out was 
that the people in our own poverty area, many of whom were school dropouts, 


couldn't pass the qualifying exam to get into this program. The first year 
we had only one person. So then, that meant we had to set up the G.E.D. class 
to try to prepare some of the young people who were interested in the careers 
in those crafts. And as a result of one year of our G.E.D., nine young people 
passed the qualifying exam this year. And we're very impressed. 

We also sponsored in 191 8 a summer youth program with 25 youth. And 
we used the instructors from the Title VI so that we could work with the 
youngsters on a one-to. . . okay, there was one instructor for each three 
youth. So that we felt that any training we give, we want to make sure that 
it's adequate and that there's maximum supervision. And for young people who 
have never worked before, especially very young people, we felt very strongly 
about having almost on a one-to-one basis so that they would learn good work 
habits in the beginning, and that you wouldn't have, say, a group of ten 
with one supervisor, where the supervisor really couldn't spend time talking 
with the youngsters and trying to motivate them towards working and towards 
good work habits. 

We've dealt with a lot of things now like employment, training, education, 
but north Memphis is still a high-crime area. So we wrote a proposal to see 
if we could set up a crime-prevention program. And we were funded in 1978 
a quarter of a million dollars, a discretionary grant from LEAA. And the 
program is now about halfway through. This program is an eighteen-month 
program, and at the present time it's about. . .at the end of June, it will 
be nine months. And we've really veered off. And I think, possibly, you may 
need to talk with Dan Porter, the project director, in terms of the activities 


we're involyed in oyer there. It's a whole study in itself. They 4 re into 

a whole lot of interesting things . 

McKAY: Do yon want to talk about the pre-apprenticeship program 

a little more? 
BONIA: Sure. Okay, the pre-apprenticeship program is funded 60% 

from Community Development "block grant funds and k0% CETA 
funds. And Code Worth is the general contractor, and the instructors are 
from AFL-CIO. The most important focus of the program is training, not get- 
ting houses done. Houses are rehabilitated as a result of the training, but 
a lot of the time is devoted to classroom instruction. And very often — 
you know, as I said, getting the house done is not our priority; the training 
is the top priority. For example, if one house has some interesting work to 
be done, where, for example, we may have to replace the stairs on a house and 
only on one house — you won't get that experience on any other houses — it's 
possible that all the participants will come to see that being done. So 
that the house they were normally working on, they would have to leave that. 
So that it takes time, but the training is excellent. The work they do is 
excellent. They do complete wiring, complete plumbing, even from changing 
the sewer all the way from the house and all the way out to the street — very 
often, the old sewer lines are full of tree roots and things like that — re- 
place all the gas lines. So it's really, it's like a new house by the time 
they get through. 

McKAY: How many people go through the program at one time? 

BONIA: Okay, we had 25 in 1978 and 35 in 1979- 


McKAY; Once they've passed your program, then their chances are 

good of "being accepted as an intern? 
BONIA; In the apprenticeship program of the union, in their spe- 

cific craft . 
McKAY: Are they guaranteed acceptance into the union? 

BONIA: It's not a guarantee. But it. T s strongly recommended. And 

they are strongly recommended by their journeyman-instructor. 
McKAY: Have most of them been accepted, do you know? 

BONIA: Yes. Now, sometimes the apprenticeship program for the 

various crafts open at a certain time during the year. For 
example, some of last year's participants are still waiting for that appren- 
tice-ship application form. For example, right now, the electricians are 
taking applications. And I would have to check to find out exactly how many 
are already accepted in the program, but the chances are good that they will 
get in. Of course sometimes we have a number of women who are involved in 
non-traditional skills. And one woman electrician who is now pregnant 
but is being highly recommended. And by the way, she is the one person from 
this area who passed the qualifying exam. She lives about two blocks from 
here. What they've done is found jobs for them in their various crafts with 
union contractors while they're waiting to get in the apprenticeship program. 
McKay: Do you do much interaction-— does Code North interact with 

Boxes -Trees? 
BONIA: We haven't had a whole lot of interaction. We did more 

when we were trying to have the area designated as a 


priority area. I think we were trying to — we had formed a coalition, a six- 
teen-member coalition, to try to kind of go after this together, you know, 
the agencies from north Memphis, and Boxes-Trees was one of the agencies in- 
volved at that level. 
McKAY: Do they employ any of the people who come through your 

BONIA: So far they haven't. They're fairly new in the area. But 

I would see it as a possibility. It takes a long period 
of training for people who are in work experience, and I do have one general 
contractor who will hire people from my program and when he can take them, 
I sort of go that route. That's E.A. Mulrooney Construction Company. 
McKAY: Do you want to talk about some of the other programs 

like that parenting workshop, or some of the uses that you 
make of your model home? 
BONIA: One of the houses which was restored by the pre-apprentice- 

ship program last year won an award from Memphis Landmarks 
Commission this year. And we are presently using that house as a model home, 
The space utility and some of the food costs are borne by a LEAA-funded pro- 
gram. The staff, the professional staff, are supplied by the midtown Men- 
tal Health Center. And they are the ones that have designed the program 
in parenting skills and child development. They have in-service there 
twice a week for a total of about four hours a week. And they cover such 
topics as behavior modification and early child care, budgeting, nutri- 
tion for the family, food demonstrations, and cost comparison. And, what's 


interesting about the program is that while the mothers are receiving in- 
service training, their children are in another room with a home intervention 
specialist learning how to interact with one another and learning different 
skills. Then, toward the end of the program, the mothers come and interact 
with the children and learn how to interact. In fact, this program is designed 
by one of our sisters, the model home program. And she is the home interven- 
tion specialist who works with midtown Mental Health Center. Her name is 
Sister Florence St. Onge. 
McKAY: S-a-i-n-t O-n-g-e? 

BONIA: O-n-g-e. And we're also using the model home at the pre- 

sent time as a transition house for a person who is in elderly 
housing who wants to test out her ability for independent living. And that 
added security, having someone there at night is good [protection] , so it 
served many purposes. 
McKAY: Would you like to close this now and just take us on a short 

BONIA: Sure. 

McKAY: Is there anything else you want to say? 

BONIA: Well, I think one thing I would like to say is that I have 

identified a lot of local leadership, and I feel that you 
need to talk with them to get their impressions of Code North. Because I 
think many of them see Code North as them; they don't see Code North as Sister 
Elizabeth. They see Code North as Charlie Holt, and Lolita Norman, and Dan 
Porter, and some of the local people who have emerged. And basically all I 


have done is to kind of clear the way, and—try to clear the way, in some 
cases I've succeeded, in many cases I'm struggling with that— so that they 
can emerge as leaders, and, you know, work out their own destiny and, you 
know, build up their own neighborhood, because that's where it's at. Unless 
they get involved with the building of their own neighborhood, it will not 
be permanent. And when I retire — whenever I retire — my work will succeed 
or continue only to the degree that the local people consider it their own, 
and will continue with it . 

McKAY : Do you have any idea how long you will be here? 

BONIA: It's difficult to say. Each time--you know, sometimes 

it seems as though it could be a year or two, other times 
new problems emerge as we extend our program that I feel perhaps that I need 
to stay a little longer. I think some of the people that we're looking on 
as leaders right now are just beginning to start their college, so you're 
almost looking at another perhaps four or five-year period, possibly. 
McKAY: Your order then will let you stay here until you feel the 

work is finished? 
BONIA: I would think so. I asked to come here, and they said, 

"Yes." And we usually negotiate our work assignments 
looking at our professional background, the needs of our order which is an 
international order, and so, and I feel that my recent training, at least, 
prepares me more to work here in my own country rather than in a developing 
country, because of the kinds of skills I've acquired in, say, real estate 
management and health administration, placement, developing those kinds of 


skills, I fell I can best use, perhaps, here in this country. And it could 
"be that I could stay in Memphis and I Code North]. "What I -would like to do, 
moving from here, would "be, move into another area where the local people 
are trying to emerge, and assist them, because I know Memphis, and I feel 
that I could provide the kinds of technical assistance they would need to 
move ahead much faster than I was able to do here because of the nature of 
the area. 



^g^ DEC 88 

INDIANA 46962'