For 40 years, Mary Alice Cooper Jenkins cleaned other people’s houses. But as she advanced in age, she struggled to maintain her own modest dwelling.
Her home of 34 years is now a termite-infested structure with mold and mildew throughout, oil-caked walls and rusty appliances. The ceiling and floors are caving in.
But that will all change today when NeighborWorks Columbus demolishes the dilapidated house to make way for a new cottage for Jenkins.
A ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. at the house located at 1518 43rd St. The public is invited to attend.
“I’m so excited, I don’t know what to do,” said the 83-year-old retired housekeeper and colon cancer survivor. “So many years I took care of people, and now they’re taking care of me.”
Among those participating in the project are some of Jenkins’ former clients, who said she was an immaculate housekeeper.
Susan Milligan, who employed Jenkins for about 12 years, is co-chairing the project with Mayor Teresa Tomlinson. She said she lost her mother at age 13, and that Jenkins later became a mother figure when she hired her to help with her household.
“Mary was a master redecorator in my house, and every time she changed pillows, every time she changed the way something was sitting on a table, it always looked better the way Mary did it,” she said. “And there was nothing sweeter than crawling into a bed that (she) made up.”
“There were times when there were difficulties in my family, and Mary stepped in like nobody else could and got responses from people that otherwise wouldn’t respond to anybody,” she added. “She’s been with me through marriage, divorce and now a happy marriage again. And she calls my current husband her boyfriend.”
So, last week, after NeighborWorks Columbus introduced Jenkins as its sixth cottage recipient, Milligan and Jenkins were together again. Milligan said she was shocked when she learned of Jenkins’ living conditions and just had to get involved.
“When we were packing her house, she kept saying, ‘It looks like this ’cause I got sick, and I just wasn’t able to take care of it,’” Milligan said. “I was just so sad that I had not been able to help her keep it up before. So I promised that this time I was going to be cleaning her house.”
Jenkins said Milligan was not only a former employer, but also a friend, and she appreciates the way she and others have come to her aid.
“Ever since I’ve known her, I’ve loved her,” Jenkins said. “She’s been there for me when I needed her, and she’s wonderful in my life.”
Brad Cummings, 35, said Jenkins took care of him as a boy when she worked for his family. She started first as a housekeeper for his paternal grandmother, the late Gloria Cummings, who once owned what later became Ann’s Porch flower shop. She also worked for his maternal grandmother, Frances Welch, and his mother, Gail Cummings.
“She was always at the house and cooked for us, baby-sat me or kept me out of trouble,” he said. “And she cleaned my house up until about four years ago when she retired.”
Cummings said he has visited Jenkins on occasion, but she never seemed to want him to come inside, probably because of the clutter. He visited her Tuesday and will help her move into her new home.
“She considers me her baby, is what she always tells me every time I walk in the door and every time she calls me or I call her,” he said. “So, I guess she felt I was a kid that she raised.”
Jenkins is a native of Americus, Ga., and was raised on a farm in Lumpkin. She moved to Columbus with her late husband, but they separated and had no children. She retired about seven years ago.
NeighborWorks learned about her situation through the Dunford family, who owned the property. Jennifer Dunford said her father, Payton Dunford, began renting the property to Jenkins about 34 years ago. When he died in 2005, Jenkins contacted her by phone.
“She was very upset and in tears and said, ‘I’m sorry about your daddy. But what’s going to happen to me?’” Dunford said. “She sounded so earnest and was so worried that we would throw her out or something. And I said, ‘Well ma’am, you’re welcome to live in that house just as long as you want.’”
Jenkins had been paying $125 in rent, Dunford said, and insisted that the family continue to take the payment. Dunford met Jenkins on the front porch once a month to pick up the rent, but she never went inside.
Then Jenkins began complaining that things were falling apart in the house and using some of the rent money for repairs. Dunford sent over a handyman to look at her floors, and he reported that the house was in bad condition.
“I tried numerous times to convince her to let us help her find a better place to live, and every time she would start crying,” Dunford said. “You know, when you’re 80-something years old and you’ve been in a place so long, you just don’t want to go. She loved that little house, and she liked the area where she lived.”
Dunford said she and her two brothers couldn’t afford to renovate the house, so they donated the property to NeighborWorks for the new cottage to be built.
Wanda Jenkins, who is of no relation to Mary Alice Cooper Jenkins, is marketing coordinator for NeighborWorks Columbus. She said Jenkins will be allowed to live in the cottage for the rest of her life. After she dies, it will be used as a transition home for other cottage recipients.
She said NeighborWorks will need volunteers to assist with landscaping and construction in September and October, and the organization hopes to complete the project by Thanksgiving. Mary Alice Cooper Jenkins, meanwhile, will remain at a transition home on Baldwin Street.
She’s looking forward to planting flowers at her new home and can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“It’s a quiet spot,” she said. “Nobody bothers me.”