The answer is a resounding yes. If that’s hard for you to believe, I’d like to tell you about Bill and Myrtle Williams, a couple who became the surrogate parents for many young people in Compton, CA.
Compton is on the south end of South Central Los Angeles, and is a poor area with a high crime rate. There the Williams’ ran what in that community became a very well known African-American flower shop from the garage of their small home.
It all began in the early 1950’s, when Bill was a janitor at the exclusive Bel-Air Country Club. One day he saw a man arranging multi-colored, heavenly scented flower center-pieces and the beauty captured his imagination.
He began taking floral-arranging classes at night at a local high school and he got a job delivering flowers, which helped him to learn the art and it let him learn the business, as he spoke with local florists.
In 1958, the couple started Bill Williams Florist in their garage, as Myrtle quit her job to work along side him. It was a labor of love.
Over the next 46 years, the tiny shop provided the flowers for inner-city weddings and funerals, for graduations and proms and for other major events in peoples’ lives. And in an area as poor as South Central, if customers couldn’t afford the price, the Williams’ quietly discounted it or offered payment terms. No-one had to do without.
But the Williams’ also played an even more important role. They never had children of their own and so the community’s children became their children. Among the apartments, housing projects and modest homes, there are many single parent or guardian households.
The Williams’ became surrogate parents mentoring the children, many of whom called them mom and dad. The Williams’ hired local kids to work in the shop, where they could learn responsibility, job skills and earn a paycheck.
And they encouraged the children to stay in school, to be respectful of themselves and others and they taught them lessons in how to succeed in life. And because education is crucial for success, this childless couple even joined local PTA’s and actively participated.
But that’s not all. If a kid didn’t have the money to attend a prom or to buy books or pay college tuition or to give a gift on an important occasion, the Williams’ silently provided the funds.
How important a difference did the Williams’ make in their community? Let’s take a hypothetical teenage boy we’ll call Dwyane. He may have no father at home so most of what he learns about being a man comes from people he hangs out with in the streets.
Those streets may be filled with gangs, violence, drugs, guns, graffiti and little of anything to build self-esteem and respect for society. Dwyane also has his sex drive kick-in and is driven in part by his hormones.
He may not have people to teach him how to treat women, how to be a parent or even how to be responsible for his own behavior. Skipping school, committing crimes, using drugs and being sent to a youth-detention facility and then to jail is so common in South Central and in many other poor communities, it’s a stereotype.
But for hundreds of Dwyanes, the Williams’ lovingly cared for them and taught them the rules and the boundaries. And thru their marriage, their work and in how they treated others and each other they served as valuable role models.
When Bill and Myrtle got married in 1942, it was at the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War ll in a highly segregated Los Angeles that offered little opportunity to blacks.
Their wedding was held in their preacher’s home and because they had so little money, they wore their work clothes.
But on their 60th wedding anniversary in 2002, their many friends in the community insisted upon providing a first class ceremony at the world famous Wayfarer’s Chapel by the ocean in upscale Palos Verdes, for the couple to renew their wedding vows.
Afterward, they brought them back to the community, to the Willowbrook Senior Center to a three layered wedding cake and presented them with matching wedding rings.
It was a beautiful expression of gratitude. Although Bill and Myrtle were actively involved in South Central, they never expected something like this and were greatly appreciative.
And it was timely. Two years later, Bill and Myrtle, both 86 years of age passed away within a few weeks of each other, at one point even sharing the same hospital room.
They had no traditional family but they had perhaps the closest family of all, the community that loved them.