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Acts of Faith

With a seemingly endless supply of compassion and spirituality, one woman has bettered the lives of children and adults in her community.

By MICHELE MILLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Rita Claxton-Woods hugs Donna Bordeau during a visit to her Angus Valley home.
WESLEY CHAPEL -- The day Rita Claxton-Woods moved into Angus Valley, some neighborhood children straggled over to check her out.

They might have been drawn by her dark skin, her Caribbean accent or even her elderly mother's wheelchair. Perhaps it was just natural curiosity.

"They had lots of questions," Claxton-Woods said. "They wanted to know what was going on, what we were doing there, whether we were staying or not."

Soon, the children were stopping over nearly every day.

"They'd be asking, "Can we hang out with you?' " Claxton-Woods, 67, said. "I'd ask them what they were up to. Their story was always the same. "We're bored -- there's nothing to do.' So I told them to come on over. As they came I just saw their need."

It was May 1993, and Claxton-Woods, a deeply religious woman who had long made community service a priority in her life, realized that she had happened upon her latest mission.

"I thought right then and there, "I am here for a purpose. The valley needs me. That's why I was brought here.' "

Angus Valley can be a tough place for a kid to grow up.

Nestled near upscale communities such as Saddlebrook Resort and just a few miles from the Interstate 75 and State Road 54 interchange, "the valley" is a predominantly white, mid- to lower-class neighborhood. It is dotted with mobile homes -- some tidy, some not -- chain-link fences, broken down cars, "no trespassing" signs and mean-looking dogs.

"If it were in a city, you'd probably know it as "the projects,' " said the Rev. Ed Russo, pastor of nearby Victorious Life Church, which Claxton-Woods attends.

The nearest recreation center is 7 miles away in Land O'Lakes.

"There's not a lot to do around here so the kids end up getting in trouble," said Pam Thomas, a church member who in the past two years has worked with roughly 100 local kids assigned to community service by the courts.

Still, it's a place where one can, for a decent price, get a plot of land and park a mobile home. It's a place where some people come to get away and others, like Claxton-Woods, come to start over.

Tampa had been home for Claxton-Woods since 1990, when she was evacuated from St. Croix after Hurricane Hugo left much of the island in ruins. Claxton-Woods found Angus Valley in 1993 while seeking a more affordable place to live.

"They used to call it Angry Valley," she said. "A few years ago you wouldn't walk the streets alone, but it's gotten better. Some people are trying. There are a lot of single mothers here or maybe two parents working two jobs making minimum (wage) so they're never home for the kids. There's still a lot of drugs, alcoholism, domestic violence. Lots of kids don't graduate -- they don't see what tomorrow holds beyond their circumstances."

Claxton-Woods soon realized she could not help the kids in Angus Valley without reaching out to their families.

She started by feeding them.

It wasn't much at first. Claxton-Woods, then 59, was getting by on her mother's Social Security check and money she earned taking on sewing and small catering jobs. With a mortgage payment of $639 along with the other bills, she managed to squeeze out $20 a month to buy extra food. That soon blossomed into a full-fledged food pantry that she ran out of her chocolate brown doublewide mobile home.

When word got around, others pitched in.

"I would come home and find a bag of groceries on my porch," Claxton-Woods said. "I'd just pass that on."

Within months of arriving in the valley, she was distributing 25 to 30 food baskets a week and giving the extras to nearby churches.

"You should have seen her place," said her friend, Terry Freeman. "It was full of boxes stacked to the ceiling -- she had this big freezer going between the living room and the kitchen. The stuff was coming in, going out, coming in, going out."

Claxton-Woods became a familiar face, known to many in the valley as "Miss Rita," "The Church Lady" or "Mom."

With fellow parishioners Pam Thomas and Marla Jarosh, she began making weekly treks through the neighborhood to distribute baked goods donated by Publix. They packaged the food with an offer of prayer and an invitation to church.

Claxton-Woods spread her lay ministry to the adults and the children who spilled out of their mobile homes at the sound of the car horn.

Soon the "church ladies" were sponsoring brunches for neighborhood women -- along with cooking, sewing and budget planning classes. In the summer, they offered arts and crafts programs for children.

They invited teenage girls, some on the brink of trouble, to Saturday morning charm classes. There, after devotions, the girls were taught how to pour a cup of tea at a table set with cloth napkins and china that Claxton-Woods had bought for a few dollars at local yard sales.

It was an eye-opening experience for many girls.

"It's not something they normally get to do," said Nancy Carpenter, whose 15-year-old daughter, Michelle Roth, attended the charm classes. "She brought a lot of different girls together. Unfortunately, kids judge each other. This gave them the opportunity to see that they really weren't all that different (from one another.) That's what Miss Rita does, she pulls the good out."

Michelle agreed: "Things are better because of her -- more kids are going to the church now."

"From the day I met her she had but one thought on her mind," said Pastor Russo. "She just really wants to help people, and that sums up Rita's life. If they need food or clothing or tutoring -- whatever -- she sees to it."

Darlene Reed can attest to that. When she found herself raising five boys alone after the death of her husband, Claxton-Woods was there to offer support and help her plan a monthly budget.

"I don't know what I would have done without her," Reed said. "My sons call her grandma -- that's how close we are."

Neighbor Tammy Dyar said Miss Rita sees needs and tries to fill them.

"When I moved to the valley I needed a bed for my son, and she provided. I could call her today and say, "Miss Rita, I'm hungry,' and she would give me food. And if she didn't have food, she'd find a way."

"She's like the hub of it all -- she's got her hands in so many pots," said Carpenter. "She's an endless supply of giving. And she doesn't do it for any recognition or reward. She always points it back to God."

Like many others who live in the valley, Claxton-Woods knows struggle.

She was born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, the eldest of 13 children -- two of whom died early. She walked to school barefoot. Her bed was fashioned out of island grass wrapped in mattress material. Dinnerware was a carved-out gourd and tin cup pounded from a food can by the village tinsmith.

Finances were precarious; faith was a constant. Days began and ended with family prayer, devotions intertwined with a tolerant blending of her parents' separate faiths. Her mother was a Seventh-day Adventist and her father, a Pentecostal. Claxton-Woods says it never caused a rift.

Family and community were priorities. Older siblings looked after younger siblings; cousins watched after cousins.

"There were 11 of us, but there were also many "adopted' children," said Melvin Claxton, Rita's younger brother, who now lives in Detroit. "There were times I would go home, and there would be four or five different faces at the dinner table."

"I had a wonderful childhood," said Claxton-Woods, who maintains a close relationship with her 10 surviving siblings. "It was financially lacking but very rich spiritually and emotionally. Our parents, they prioritized our lives. We had a good life."

At 24, Claxton-Woods set out to forge a better life in the United States. It was 1958. She dreamed of being a movie star but landed a sales job at a Woolworth. Her talent as a seamstress got her contract work designing uniforms for airlines and costumes for off-Broadway. Her resume coups were a job as a wardrobe supervisor on the movie The Island of Dr. Moreau and costume design work on the television shows Miami Vice, Not Necessarily the News and The Greatest American Hero.

During that time she married and divorced twice and gave birth to three children, Errol, Guy and Leslie.

In 1987 she returned to St. Croix, when her father died. She was a single mother just getting by then, and had to pass on two large seamstress jobs and sell her sewing machines so she could fly herself and her children to St. Croix for the funeral. That left her penniless. But starting with a sack of flour, an old gas stove, and a load of determination, she built a business selling breads and cakes. Eventually she became the proprietor of a restaurant and ice cream parlor called Heavenly Sweets.

She was finally settled, at peace with her lot, when Hugo hit.

"One day I had a business -- I had everything," she said. "The next day I was standing in line for a cup of coffee."

Even now, Claxton-Woodswalks that financial tightrope. Since her mother died in 1997, she makes do on her $361 Social Security check and money she drums up from sewing jobs or selling the homemade soaps and jams she makes with her daughter, Leslie. Sometimes the water or electricity gets shut off. It seems she's always playing catchup with the mortgage.

Always, she prays.

Sometimes her prayers are answered by others, family members who pitch in when they can. Then there are friends such as Lorena Jaeb.

"Sometimes I helped her pay her electric bill and her phone bill; that wasn't very much and I don't mind," said Jaeb of Tampa. "What I respect her for is her work with young people. I really think that she has a call in her life and what she does is really hands on. With some bigger charitable organizations, it's not like that."

In November 2000, Victorious Life Church opened its own Outreach Center and Food Pantry in the valley. That closed the door on one ministry for Claxton-Woods, while opening the window on another.

Her main focus became youth caught up in the juvenile justice system.

While she maintains many of her other causes, once a week Claxton-Woods visits local juvenile detention centers such as Gulf and Lake Academy and Wilson Youth Academy, both in Land O'Lakes. There Claxton-Woods offers prayer services and support to those who have been before a judge one too many times.

She comforts those who come forward: a young girl who weeps uncontrollably because she misses her son; a young man who since the Sept. 11 attacks has been anxious and has a simple request for Claxton-Woods: that she call his mother and tell her to be careful opening her mail and to stay away from shopping malls.

"Now they want to be taught on the end of time. A lot of them are concerned about going to heaven," said Claxton-Woods. "I talk to them about their choices. I talk to them about grace -- what God provides for them even though they don't deserve it."

When the kids are released from custody, if there is no one else, Claxton-Woods will be there. She follows up with calls of support. If they need to get in touch with her when they find themselves in trouble or facing a weak moment, she hands out prepaid calling cards funded by a nonprofit agency she started called "CAN (Christ Advocate for the Needy) Ministries."

The newly freed need some stability before going off on their own, said Claxton-Woods, who dreams of one day opening a self-sustaining home and learning center that could also serve as a recreation center for the youngsters who live in Angus Valley.

"It is a vicious cycle," she said of the juvenile justice system. "They get them in there and straighten them up. Then they send them back to the same neighborhood, the same schools, the same homes. Then most of them come back into the system."

The Rev. Steve Brown of Worldwide Church of God in Safety Harbor agrees. As a member of the Juvenile Justice Council, he has accompanied Claxton-Woods on her visits to juvenile centers.

"The kids are housed in these detention centers, and when they get out, many of them don't have a place to go. They may have a mom or dad on crack or alcohol. But she gives them hope for the future -- that they're going to come out and somebody will love them," said Brown, of New Port Richey.

"I hope she gets this redemption house," said Ariell Stinyard, 18, who was released from Wilson Youth Academy in March and still finds herself struggling.

"It's easy to do good when you're in there -- that's what's expected in order to get out. While you're in the program, you learn not to do the things you were doing before, like drugs and breaking and entering," she said. "Then you get out and everything's changed -- well you've changed, but the people out there, they haven't changed. Even parents -- sometimes they don't be there like they should. So if a girl had somewhere to go when they get out, somewhere to go and think about their lives, they might do all right. And Miss Rita, she'd be there to guide you, to help you stay in the right direction."

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