Don't ever tell
Yevola Peters that the poor need to be empowered. Peters, CEO
of Anne Arundel County's antipoverty organization, the Community
Action Partnership (CAP), won't hesitate to explain her belief
that every person, rich or poor, possesses a power that comes
from within, and it is up to each individual to identify and use
that power. Peters has learned that activists who do the kind
of work she and CAP do "believe that people can help themselves
because the idea is that you really can't do for a person,
you do with a person. You don't empower a person but,
rather, that person becomes empowered."
asserts that an individual who works to help the poor is one who
is able to remind himself of the necessity of a joint effort between
the provider of the resources and the recipient of them. Peters
says she and others like her must "really understand that whatever
happens, it isn't really me who's doing it. I'm providing an environment
for the personbecause the power is in that person. If that person
doesn't have the will and the desire and the commitment, I could
do anything and everything, but it wouldn't make a difference.
All I can do is provide the setting."
The job of CAP is to provide that setting. CAP (formerly CAA or
Community Action Agency) is an organization that provides services
to low-income residents of Anne Arundel County. The agency was
one of many CAAs that was started after President Johnson declared
the War on Poverty in 1964, and funds were allocated to help eliminate
poverty across the country. Today, CAP is funded by government
grants and private fundraising efforts, and it operates several
programs to assist low-income families and individuals in every
stage of their lives, from before birth to after retirement.
Early Head Start provides education and support to pregnant women
and young children. Head Start is the successful pre-school program
for three- and four-year-old children. The Annapolis Youth Services
Bureau provides fun, constructive activities as well as intervention
and treatment for teens in trouble. The Senior Employment and
Nutrition Program assists the county's senior citizens by providing
job placement and meal deliveries. Residents of all ages benefit
from the Energy Assistance Program, which helps people pay their
utility bills. Housing Services help people acquire affordable
housing. Empowerment Services counselors provide follow-up inquiries
for people after they have received a specific service. CAA also
helps the poor with food, medical care, counseling, drug treatment,
conflict resolution, education, job training and other issues,
by encouraging individuals to make use of its own programs or
referring them to other social services in the county.
Peters' relationship with CAA began in 1969, when she began volunteering
for the agency while working as a music teacher. "I felt that
I should teach the student, not teach the subject," says Peters.
"The subject was a tool to help the student." Watching her students
progress in their lives, not just in their schoolwork, was something
that Peters found compelling.
"While I was teaching, I found something attracted me to those
students who didn't want to be in school particularly. I would
work with 9th graders, often the ones who would usually cause
a bit of trouble, but I found that music, as they say---music
soothes. Well, it worked. Young people took to music, and I used
it to help them set goals. Either they loved to sing or loved
to perform or loved to play an instrument. As a result, the director
asked me to write a proposal to fund cultural enrichment and youth
development programs. In June, after school closed, she came to
me and said 'Guess what? We got word that we're going to be funded.
Now we need you to come back and run the program!'"
Peters got so involved with that and other programs that she ended
up working for the agency full time and gave up her plan to return
Over time, she saw the impact the agency was having on the community.
She could see that when young people took advantage of the youth
development programs, "They were more successful in school. They
were able to see some worth in themselves. For the parents, we
also did training in various skills, whether we did literacy or
helping with employment training opportunities. So then you could
see people able to increase their income, and people would move
out of poverty, which was what it was all about."
Peters continued her work with CAA and became director in 1975.
She left the agency in 1991 to pursue more hands-on projects and
was asked to return in 2000 to help sort out financial difficulties.
Peters hopes to return to her hands-on work eventually, but CAP
knows she'll be tough to replace.
Max Ochs, local musician and CAP's director of public affairs,
is one of the many people who appreciates Peters' participation
in CAP. "She should be using her time to relax and enjoy her grandchildren,"
says Ochs. "But she's here, working hard, staying late. She's
a real warrior." To Ochs, Peters isn't just a colleague, but a
dear old friend as well. He has even expressed his admiration
for her in a poem:
Citizen, sister, teacher, friend,
Today's the beginning and not the end.
The beauty of a person emanates from the heart,
In the story of our lives you will always play a part.
Love is the basis of all your work,
To bring healing where there used to be hurt,
To bring up people who used to be down,
To bring smiles to the faces that used to frown.
The beauty of a person emanates from the spirit;
When the still, small voice speaks, you hear it.
Peters' role as a loving warrior for the poor is one she feels
she was born to play. "Frankly, I think my life's calling is working
with people. I'm a very spiritual person, and I believe that each
of us has a purpose. I've accepted what my purpose is, but I must
say that I had to grow into that knowledge. It was with [age and
maturity] that I've been able to go with the flow."
For Peters, finding and fulfilling one's purpose is achieved when
the inner power she speaks of moves them. Helping the poor find
that power is what she considers to be the key to the psychological
side of moving people out of poverty which, to her, is just as
important as the economic side. "Everybody has the power, regardless
of whatever the outward appearance seems. I do strongly believe
that as God-created people we've all been endowed with the power
to be successful, and [that] is really what my individual goal
is. It's not about trying to make molds of success, but it's letting
people succeed once they feel their inner strength. I call it
discovering the power within. That's what I think we're here to
do. We're here to help people discover the power they have within
themselves to be what they want to be."
Wilkinson is a recent graduate of St. John's College, where
she reads a selection of the great books of Western civilization.
She plans to move to Korea to teach conversational English.