Changing the Course of Human History

written by Brad Campbell 

Can one person change the course of human history? Can someone create a bend in the road to a better place that wasn’t there before? I believe they can. All it took was one look at the whiteboard in Yolanda Thomas’ office to convince me.

On the wall in front of her desk hangs a whiteboard with numbers going back to October of 2022 The numbers represent the residents at Bayou Grande who have been assigned case managers from Volunteers of America North Louisiana. In the last two years, they have risen from 41 to 79. That means 93% of the low-income residents at the complex have a case manager connecting them to healthcare, employment, and educational opportunities. Those people’s lives will more than likely never be the same.

Yolanda serves as the Division Director for Care Coordination, which provides case management and service coordination to clients. I met Yolanda almost six years ago, and one of the first things I noticed about her was her smile, a deceptively harmless weapon in her arsenal to change people’s lives. “Behind her smile is a quiet fierceness,” said Diane Libro, Quality Assurance Manager. “She will fight for what is right for her staff and those she serves.” Diane worked with Yolanda in the initial stages of Choice Neighborhood, a daunting collaboration to revitalize the Allendale, Ledbetter Heights and West Edge Neighborhoods.

Temporarily, Yolanda officed in a cubicle next to me where I witnessed another one of Yolanda’s secret weapons: Determination. She spent hours calling former residents of Jackson Heights, a a housing project that had been demolished a decade earlier. Those residents would have priority when the first phase of Bayou Grande was complete. Unfortunately, only five households took her up on the offer to relocate. “I had to start from scratch,” she said, “but I knew we could accomplish it.”

Yolanda simply reached for another one of her tools: Relationships. “First, you build trust by being able to communicate with people who feel as if no one cares about them. You have to be able to meet them where they are.”

According to Yolanda, it takes about two years to build those relationships. “I’d call and just say, ‘I don’t want nothing from you. I’m just checking on you.’ Then you can get to finding out what you can do for them. HUD was shocked that we could do it.”

“We ran into many challenges when starting Choice, but she always kept the clients’ needs first,” added Diane. “Throughout the process Yolanda constantly reminded HUD and the City of the promises made to clients and what they needed to be ready to move in – things like cleaning up old utility payments, ensuring the application was user friendly, and making sure our clients’ applications were on the top of the waiting list.”

Yolanda said the key to her success at Bayou Grande was understanding her target population. “We deal with a really difficult population of people who come from hard places. These people are survivors. They don’t think about tomorrow; they think about now, what’s happening in this moment.”

Much of Yolanda’s spirit was forged by her experiences growing up during the early years of desegregation. She was bussed from an all-Black school to an all-White school in Bossier City in the early 70’s. She recalls being the only Black student on the school bus and growing up in a community with only two Black families.

“I had to overcome a lot, and I was able to bring a lot of people with me.” There had never been a Black student to attend the prom at Bossier High School, so she created a social club with the help of a teacher, encouraging students who were failing and didn’t stand a chance of graduating to join. “I got every person in my class to go to prom.”

Her efforts reveal another weapon she wields: Inclusion. “I couldn’t see why they shouldn’t be included. They weren’t bad kids when I went to school with them in elementary school…Why couldn’t they read? Something happened between moving them from this all-Black school to this all-White school…and they shut down. I grew up with them from pre-school and I was watching it, and it wasn’t good.”

“I am a person who believes we all are human, and I want us all to be able to do better,” she added.

This brings us to the last weapon in Yolanda’s arsenal of transforming people’s lives: Love. “When you love, people feel that, and that’s what they want,” Yolanda said. In her first position with ADHC, which did not reopen after COVID, she was determined to see people who might otherwise be stuck at home have opportunities for socialization. She recalled one client who thrived at the center from the time she was 89 to 93. “We actually kept people alive. When we closed down for COVID, she died.”

Upon leaving her office, I glanced at the whiteboard again and asked her to explain some of the other numbers to me. “Look here,” she said, tapping the board, “we got nine in college! Out of all of this, we only have four households that have no revenue, so we concentrate right here. All our children are in some form of preschool or day care but 9. Out of 85 households with very low income, we serve 79. Of that 79, we got 50 of them employed.”

I looked back at the board and noticed the words “Phase 5,” which is the next complex currently under construction. When I asked Yolanda about that, she smiled broadly and said, “122 units, we’re going to get 58 of those households,” But behind that smile, I could tell that that wasn’t going to be enough for her. The next time I visit her office, I’m certain she will have changed the course of human history once again.

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