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October 2, 2007

Love Thy Neighbor (FIRST LOOKS AT EXTRAORDINARY NEIGHBORS): A lifetime activist still moving

This article is the first in a monthly series about neighborhood leaders from across Louisville Metro. Hallie Jones works at the Center For Neighborhoods, a community-based organization that has been training neighborhood leaders in Louisville for more than 20 years. You can learn more about the Center For Neighborhoods at www.centerforneighborhoods.org. Meet Ella Retter. She is 61 years old and currently living in the Park DuValle Oaks neighborhood on South 35th Street. Ella’s history as a resident of Louisville is rich. She moved here from Montgomery, Ala., with her mother when she was 12 and has lived in many areas of the city, including Smoketown, Shawnee, Germantown, the South End and Phoenix Hill.“When I was 16, our house in Phoenix Hill caught on fire and we moved to Sheppard Square ,” she said. At 21, she got married and had two daughters. “I ended up moving to the Shawnee neighborhood in the West End because my family was growing, and I bought my first home.” Because of financial problems, Ella was forced to live in substandard housing until she had the opportunity to move back to Sheppard Square. She was delighted to return because she thought it was in better condition than other public housing options. Section 8 was not available at the time, and to Ella, public housing still appeared segregated: Parkway Place, Iroquois Homes and Clarksdale were for whites, and Beecher Terrace, Sheppard Square, Cotter-Lang and Southwick were for blacks.Living in public housing greatly helped Ella’s situation.“It provided me with the opportunity to regain my financial footing so I could be a better parent, and it placed me in my first leadership role, as coordinator of the Resident Council, where I advocated on behalf of the residents to the Housing Authority Board. “When my mother died, I assumed care-giving responsibility for my sister, who was an amputee. So I became knowledgeable and passionate about working with the disabled.”Now, through her position at the Presbyterian Community Center, Ella works with the Harambee Health Clinic on South Hancock Street to help people maintain their health. She also does healthcare advocacy for people between 18 and 64, and works with the U of L School of Nursing to bring activities, awareness and services to her community. “There is no point in having a clinic if the patients can’t get the drugs prescribed by the doctor,” she said. To that end, she is working with the clinic to establish a prescription drug voucher system though Kroger and Walgreens. She hopes to see the creation of a one-stop center for healthcare services and assistance, and wants to speed up the process — because, of course, time is of the essence when people are sick. Why do community work? Simply, Ella likes people and believes that “being in a position to help others is a good place to be in life. When I’m able to do things to assist other people, it uplifts me. It makes my relationships strong. It makes me happy.”Currently, Ella is working for Making Connections Louisville as a Resident Organizing Coordinator. Her position has placed her back in the Smoketown neighborhood (which she’s long been connected to) working out of the Presbyterian Community Center. Her work in Smoketown is focused on bringing activities and services to neighbors, and Ella is driven to take on housing and healthcare issues because of her own personal life experience. “I hope to help improve community health, establish safe and decent housing, build assets, create stronger neighborhoods and to uphold community values,” she said. “When all these values are implemented, we will enjoy a safe and healthy community.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com