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Neighborhood advocate puts faith into helping the needy

You won't find Arletta Williams' name in historical accounts of St. Louis or its Walk of Fame, but she was there behind the scenes with some significant figures in the city during the last century.

In the early 1980s, Williams worked with Sister Pat Kelley, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word who founded EnergyCare. She also was involved in neighborhood projects with Jesuit Father Paul Reinert, former president of St. Louis University who was known as a community organizer and advocate of the needy. Other colleagues of hers in reaching out to the needy were members of the Danforth family and the Danforth Foundation.

Williams' outreach came as a member of the former Immaculate Conception-St. Henry Parish, as an outreach worker at Christ Lutheran Church and as a neighborhood advocate. She now is a member of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in south St. Louis.

Sister Pat, who was called the "Mother Teresa of St. Louis" by Archbishop John L. May, founded EnergyCare to assist low- and fixed-income elderly with energy-related needs. Williams shared Sister Pat's desire to help low-income people who live in the least energy-efficient homes and end up spending a lot more of their limited incomes on utility bills. They get trapped in a cycle of owing money to utility companies. Sister Pat and Williams used to walk around the neighborhood and see if anyone needed help. Williams helped the agency reach more people by pushing a grant proposal to pay young people in an after-school and job-training program to do home weatherizing.

Williams said she knew the Danforths since they were children, and she called on them to support her outreach, including EnergyCare. She was writing to one of them when she learned that Sister Pat was found murdered in her office in 1987.

Williams is still a big supporter of EnergyCare. With a smile and a chuckle, she said that "if I was able and had a car or had somebody to drive me, I'd go beg everybody" to donate funds to the organization. "I'd go to the bank. They got money."

Other agencies she worked with included the Southside Coalition and the Human Development Corporation. She was on a board at McKinley School and helped teens and young adults through job-training programs. Williams was active with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Fr. Jack Gavin Outreach Center. She also connected with the police commander of the Third District in St. Louis and was involved in watching after and providing activities for children of the neighborhood. Many of them — and even some adults, including a pastor — called her "Momma."

"Kids in the neighborhood from Grand to Compton — those are my kids," Williams said. "All of them grew up to be nice young men and women. All of them have good jobs, working. I told them you've got to work to live, you've got to live to work. You have to obey the rules and regulations and respect God."

She told of one youngster from a difficult family situation who she had trouble reaching. "I prayed for him and I talked to him," Williams said. "I told him I love him and God loves him. And you know what he's doing now? He's a minister."

She once talked a man out of taking his life after depression set in following a death in his family and a dispute over the estate. "I had to get him straight. I told him, 'Leave it alone, God will take care of it. You got back in there. And don't call here this time of night, I'm trying to rest.'"

Williams may have gone back to bed, but before she did she sent her son out to get the man help.

When she saw children in the neighborhood who looked sad, she gave them stickers that stated, "Smile. God loves you."

Her mother was a teacher and her father a Baptist minister. She explained the reason why she became Catholic. "I don't care about anybody who goes to church on Sundays and don't care about you on Mondays. You know, they put all that money in on Sunday, then when you need something there's no one there to help you."

People need help, Williams said, and the Catholic Church is always there to help people. Her father agreed with her decision, she said.

She once told children at a school where she volunteered that she was there to help them because she loved them. If she didn't love them, she'd be home watching soap operas, Williams said with a laugh.

Now age 87 and a widow since 1973, Williams said she enjoyed the experience with EnergyCare and giving back to her community. "God's been good to me," she said. 

>> Winter warming

EnergyCare's Winter Warming program helps low-income residents in St. Louis city and county who are elderly, chronically ill, disabled or very young — people who are particularly susceptible to the dangerous extremes of temperature. Sometimes EnergyCare staff and volunteers do home weatherization. In other cases, the windows and doors need to be replaced in order to achieve a safe indoor temperature.

The goal is to increase the energy efficiency of each home so that the families stay safe and warm and spend less of their limited incomes on utilities.

During the winter of 2016-17 EnergyCare provided: winter weatherization for 264 people in 88 homes; electric heaters and smoke detectors for 167 homes with 253 people; blankets for 172 people; weatherization kits for 110 families to help keep warmer; utility assistance payments for St. Louisans under 135 percent of the federal poverty level for 886 people in 510 households who faced utility disconnection; 1,179 home visits to families who received tailored services; education about other community services through referrals to more than 1,000 people; and free air conditioners for 126 low-income seniors.

EnergyCare serves the most vulnerable people in St. Louis: 84 percent are women; 66 percent of families have an older adult; 52 percent of families include a disabled person; 57 percent of families include someone who is chronically ill; and 11 percent of families have a child under 5.

The income of the average client of EnergyCare is 66 percent of the federal poverty line.

To help:

• Mail a tax-deductible donation to EnergyCare, P.O. Box 63172, St. Louis, MO 63163-9966.

• Call (314) 773-5968, ext. 23, to make a credit card donation over the phone or for information.

• Donate online at www.energycare.org. 

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