Mary Alice Cooper Jenkins, the retired housekeeper whose home fell into serious disrepair because of poor health, walked into a brand new cottage Thursday, experiencing a Christmas miracle on 43rd Street.
Jenkins, 83, arrived at the home at 1518 43rd Street with her eyes closed. When she opened them, she found about 75 people on her front lawn, all there to greet her for the special occasion.
After a brief Cottage Key Ceremony organized by NeighborWorks Columbus - and a touching rendition of “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” by the Midland Middle School Chorus - Mayor Teresa Tomlinson presented Jenkins with the key to her new home.
Jenkins then walked through the front door of the beautifully decorated two-bedroom house to find new living room furniture, kitchen appliances and a handicap accessible bathroom. In the bedroom, some of Jenkins’ old furniture had been restored, including a cherished vanity given to her by her grandmother. A small Christmas tree in the living room was decked with some of personal her ornaments.
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“It’s good,” she said, as tears welled up in her eyes. ”Just so beautiful.”
Jenkins, who worked as a housekeeper for many local families, has lived on the property for about 32 years. But it became a termite-infested structure with mold and mildew, rusty appliances and a ceiling and floors caving in.
Susan Milligan, who co-chaired the project with Mayor Tomlinson, said the home couldn’t have gone to a more deserving recipient. She said she was a newlywed when Jenkins became her housekeeper many years ago.
“She not only came in and helped me learn how to be a wife, helped me learn how to be a mother through example but she also helped me graciously end that marriage and go into another one,” she said. “More than anything she has been a friend to me.”
She said someone asked her recently how being a cottage recipient had changed Jenkins. “And I said, ‘I think it has softened her. I think Mary grew up in a time when this kind of thing just didn’t happen, and it certainly didn’t happen in the south to an African-American woman. She has graciously accepted her role in life and she has taught everybody who has watched her how to stand above their circumstances and just be a gracious angel of God.”
Jenkins said later that she was the one blessed by others and grateful for what everyone had done.
“God has blessed me a mighty long way,” she said. “It’s a Christmas present for me and I hope to live long to enjoy it.”
During the ceremony, Cathy Williams, NeighborWorks executive director, said it was a community-wide effort that led to Jenkins’ new home. She said businesses and individuals in the Columbus community donated thousands of dollars for the project, and many volunteers gave of their time.
“Miss Mary a lot of people wanted to touch your life because what we’ve learned over the last several months of doing this is that you touched so many lives in Columbus through your service to families in this community,” she said. “And so many of those families wanted to come and help you.”
Williams gave special recognition to Jennifer and Frank Dunford, whose late father originally rented the property to Jenkins. Williams said they contacted NeighborWorks Columbus after discovering Jenkins’ terrible living conditions. They donated the property to NeighborWorks so the organization could build her a safe place to live.
“It was that generous gift of that property to this program that allowed NeighborWorks to say, “absolutely, we can make it happen for Miss Mary.’ So Jenny and Frank you’re responsible for this Miracle on 43rd Street and we appreciate it.”
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Frank Dunford said the house was in such bad condition that things couldn’t be nailed on the wall without the wood coming apart. He said the family couldn’t afford to rebuild the house, and donating it to NeighborWorks was the best option for everyone involved.
Under the program, Jenkins will be allowed to live in the house until her death, and then the property will be used by NeighborWorks to house other clients that need shelter.
“You can’t do anymore than this for someone,” Dunford said. “People want to give us the credit, but the people who built this house, the people who donated all of this, they are the ones that should get the credit.”
Williams said the organization needed volunteers to complete the project a couple weeks ago and students from the 3rd Battalion 11th Infantry Regiment Officer Candidate School came to the rescue. They showed up on a cold, rainy Saturday and helped clear the lot, clean furniture and re-stage the house so Jenkins could move in by Christmas.
Cynthia Walker, chair of the Columbus Cottage Committee, said the program began in 2008 when the Columbus Consolidated Government and NeighborWorks Columbus decided that more needed to be done to help elderly citizens of Columbus. She said Jenkins’ home is the sixth that the organization completed, and the second one this year. She encouraged residents to notify the organization if they know of other elderly people living in dilapidated conditions.
Julia Hill, 72, was among those who attended the ceremony. She read about Jenkins’ story in the newspaper a few months ago and decided to donate some of the living room furniture, flatware, a 20-inch television and other items.
“God has blessed me so much,” Hill said. “It makes me happy to give to someone else.”