A 55-year-old grandmother living in public housing started an after-school program in her home nearly two years ago that has drawn support from local agencies and residents.
More than 40 students a day had been coming to Josephine Wortham's Club Jesus for help with homework and to participate on the club's dance team. But the woman recognized twice this year for her community service work at Emma Wheeler Homes said Chattanooga Housing Authority officials told her in early November that the club was a liability and she had to shut it down immediately.
"Oh my God," Wortham said. "You've got to live here to understand. You've got kids who need Club Jesus. They don't have families. We feed kids out of our home."
Wortham said she doesn't have as many children in Club Jesus as she once had, but she still is operating. Instead of closing down, she is discussing the possibility of moving to a South Chattanooga church and using a van to transport the children.
"It's hard," said Wortham. "But I'm not giving up."
Housing officials say they commend the work that Wortham has done at Emma Wheeler Homes, the city's fourth-largest public housing development. But having 40 children in one apartment can be dangerous, they said.
"It is CHA's belief that having such a large number of children in a confined space is not conducive to a safe environment," CHA Resident Services Director Carol Johnson said in a written statement.
Johnson said the housing agency offered Wortham access to the larger Resident Community Building to hold her club, but Wortham refused to sign the agreement given to every service provider that uses the building.
Wortham said the agreement would have given someone else authority over her program and that she wanted to remain the program director.
Said CHA spokeswoman Cheryl Marsh, "We were just trying to offer a building. No one is trying to take her authority. It will be her program housed at that building."
Concerning the number of children in her apartment, Wortham said about a dozen students are in her home at one time according to their grade level. Students start coming at 3:30 p.m., and the last group leaves at 7:30 p.m., she said.
Wortham said she also was disappointed that the housing authority hired two people to be resident services coordinators with a three-year, $480,000 HUD grant, when she had operated her Club Jesus for nearly two years without pay.
She said she wasn't worried about pay for herself but thought the housing authority should have done more to support the program. She said housing officials initially said they would give a building to Club Jesus, but it never happened. Then in November, CHA offered the use of the Resident Community Building but said Wortham had to share it with other service providers.
Wortham's community service on another initiative at Emma Wheeler Homes received recognition twice this year, first from the Chattanooga Hamilton County Health Department, which gave her a $1,000 grant to further her work, and later from the Southeast Regional Tennessee Conference on Social Welfare. That agency named her its Volunteer Advocate of the Year.
At first, Wortham gave children her own knives and forks to dig a garden as an after-school activity. But when the health department, which has been promoting community gardens and healthy eating, saw her efforts, officials gave her the grant to support the garden.
The money led to a 16-bed community garden that provided food for 17 Emma Wheeler Homes residents. Children from Club Jesus helped Wortham build the beds.
"She is an unbelievable leader in [her] community," Tina Vance, a supervisor with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, said in October upon learning of the Advocate of the Year award. "She gives kids hope."
Even without Club Jesus, there will be activities for children at Emma Wheeler, housing officials said.
The resident service coordinator is working with the YMCA and Toys for Tots to offer services for families and plans to provide families with health, educational, technological and recreational activities in the new year, they said.
Quantearra Colvin, 14, is among an estimated 179 children who have attended Club Jesus since it started and hopes it continues.
"Anytime I need somebody to talk to, Ms. J is there," said Quantearra. "If anything isn't going well at home or at school, I talk to her so my day will be brighter."
Ten-year-old Ja'siah Springs goes to Club Jesus after school to do his homework.
"It's fun to come over here because it's not anything else to do," Ja'siah said. "Over there, we dance and sometimes we eat."
And 17-year-old Devante Morris attended Club Jesus until he moved out of Emma Wheeler Homes this year.
"She wants better for young kids," said Devante. "She is the person trying to get the kids off of the street and show them a positive way."
Crabtree Farms also hopes for a happy ending soon.
Crabtree employee Andrea Jaeger said the agency has applied for a grant intended to help Crabtree Farms work with Club Jesus youth next summer to help them learn more about their community garden and eating healthy foods.
"She's an inspiration," said Jaeger about Wortham. "She helps a lot of kids, and they get excited when they see her."
Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...