A Life of Service Inspires Monica Washington to Empower Her Students
By Monica Washington, 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year & 2015 LMC Fellow
I entered the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes (LMC) to begin my week as a 2015 LMC 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 LMC, 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 of videos of close friends talking about Patsy Oliver’s impact on the community. Through those words, I was able to see the respect that Oliver garnered through her environmental work. Oliver never set out to lead an environmental movement. However, she led it.
Bess told me about a time when 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 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 on 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 LMC 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.
The 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year, Monica Washington is a 2015 LMC Fellow and serves as serves as English Department Chair and a new teacher mentor at Texas High School.