Crusader Could Close Her Eyes to Trouble No More

Crusader Could Close Her Eyes to Trouble No More

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Crusader Could Close Her Eyes
to Trouble No More

God helps them that help themselves.

Benjamin Franklin

It was one ordinary woman with an extraordinarily simple request of city hall that helped turn around a blighted block and troubled neighborhood, and changed how the city of Roanoke, Virginia, interacts with its citizens— and possibly, how America will reconnect with its government.

Florine Thornhill, 73, had no intention of causing such a stir. She just decided to do something small to make her block better.

So she marched down to city hall and asked a suspicious official if she could borrow a lawn mower to clean up one abandoned and overgrown lot.

For years, she had walked her neighborhood with blinders to the blight, stepping past the decaying homes, drug deals and derelicts. One Sunday in 1979, on her way to church choir, she passed an unconscious woman in the overgrowth of a nearby lot. Thornhill assumed it was a drug addict and walked on. But she couldn’t dismiss the woman from her mind.

What, she found herself wondering, would Jesus have her do? So she turned back home and got her son to help her get the woman to safety. Thornhill never learned the woman’s name or why she was unconscious. But the encounter opened her eyes to the sadness and poverty she had spent so much time blocking out.

The mother of nine—including one child with mental disabilities—decided to do what she could. She borrowed that mower and cleaned one lot.

Her neighbors became curious, then joined in. On weekends, 15 middle-aged and elderly residents soon were picking up the trash and mowing vacant lots.

In city hall, officials noticed that the once-decrepit neighborhood had begun to shine. In 1980, Roanoke city officials asked Thornhill and her Gilmer neighbors to join in a pilot project with three other city neighborhoods. It would allow them to help set goals for the city, to show the officials how to turn their poor, urban areas around.

The experiment was successful, thanks to Thornhill and the other ordinary people like her. Today, 25 neighborhoods are working in the system to improve Roanoke. Other Virginia cities have followed Roanoke’s lead. The Roanoke model is being studied across America, as government officials try to involve the people they serve. Thornhill and her group, the Northwest Neighborhood Environmental Organization, won the 1994 President’s Volunteer Action Award, presented by President Clinton for volunteer efforts that changed a community.

But Thornhill said her real measure of success is not in the White House recognition. It is in the children playing at a fully equipped park that was once an open-air market for drug dealers. It is in the homes that her group has been able to buy and rebuild with housing grants they tracked down and won with some city help.

It is in the professionals they have been able to entice back to Gilmer with low-interest loans, and it is in the part-time worker they have been able to hire to help organize neighborhood activities and get more grant money. “It’s
just so wonderful to see the children coming home,” Thornhill said. “I know they care; they will keep this neighborhood going long after I’m gone.”

Toni Whitt

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners