Verna Laboy is a “social entrepreneur.” At age 57, she’s spent most of her adult life connecting people, creating support groups, mentoring, and pointing a spotlight on the needs and challenges of Columbia’s First Ward. Over the years, hundreds have crossed the threshold of her “Worley Street Manor,” the place from which she’s mothered not only her own five children and 13 grandchildren, but a host of other people’s kids too. She’s also launched a parade of grass roots movements from that blue manor that sits at the intersection of Ridgeway and Worley Streets.
When asked to describe their mom, her adult children use words like “determined,” “passionate” and “resourceful.” And when you ask Laboy to talk about the grass roots movements she’s had a hand in creating, she giggles, “Oh my God… I have birthed so many babies right here in this living room.” One of her first babies was the Worley Street Project, an effort to add beauty and push back crime in the neighborhood.
When her realtor first showed her and husband, Gil Laboy, the Victorian-style historic property in 1994, she said, “No, that’s not the house!” She wasn’t so sure she wanted to live in that part of town. “I did not want to live on drug-infested Worley Street,” she admits, though from the start, she loved the way the house looked and had a vision of surrounding it with beautiful gardens.
“It just looked like a manor and [over the years] it grew into its name,” Laboy continues. “I get a kick out of the people who pull up on their bikes, snap a photo and run.” Now, most visitors to the Worley Street Manor pull up in cars and head straight for her dining room table to brainstorm ways to support those who struggle in Columbia’s First Ward. Kids, single moms, the lonely, and sometimes those who just need to take a break and sit with her on the front porch swing and sip a cup of tea. Once she noticed men were loitering near a half-way house across the street and invited a neighborhood middle school student to wait for her school bus at the manor. “Tell that baby to come and sit on my porch in the morning!” she insisted.
DeeDee Jackson became a mom at age 15. She first met the woman who has been her mentor for decades when Laboy came to speak to one of her classes at Douglass High School. Jackson is now a 35-year-old advocate for the homeless and has a crystal clear memory of the day that changed her life.
“She just reeked of someone who loved hard,” Jackson says. “You knew right off the bat that she was someone who really wanted to touch your life.” Laboy became the kind of mother Jackson never had. “She helped me carry the weight of the world that I had been carrying all by myself,” she says. Jackson carried the weight of raising an infant son alone without the support of family or her drug-addicted mother who couldn’t offer much of what a teenager needs.
“When I met her, my mom was on drugs really bad and Miss Verna immediately gave me her number and was always checking up on me. I could tell her anything and the door of Worley Street Manor was always open for me,” Jackson says.
Laboy’s longtime friend, Dee Campbell-Carter, visited the manor not long after moving to Worley Street. Right away, Campbell-Carter sensed that there was something special not only about the stately property perched in the middle of Columbia’s inner city, but about Laboy herself. She remembers the colorful lawn, a real oasis in what she described as a “barren neighborhood,” she recalls. “I remember marveling that her living room had a huge round table in it, and that struck me as an ingenious encouragement of building community within her home.”
That sense of community was fleshed out in 2005 when she launched Ladies Night Out, a support group for single moms that met every Thursday night at her home. There were only two women at that first meeting and four years later, 40 women were cramming into her dining room every week. They showed up for conversation, “diaper showers,” birthday celebrations, Bible study and a host of other events to bring a little joy and a sense of belonging into their lives. What she really wanted to do was unveil her faith to those sometimes-hurting women who gathered around her table.
“My grandmother told me that my life is the only Bible some people will ever read,” Laboy says, and Ladies Night Out was an opportunity for her to let women read the pages of her life.
“Five hundred different women sat in this living room during those four years of Ladies Night Out,” she says. “We had to keep the doors open in the winter because it was so crowded and got so hot.” The group eventually moved under the umbrella of Love INC’s Living Large program that met at a downtown church. Laboy tells of women who drove in from Ashland, Holts Summit and even the strip clubs. She loved the excitement of not knowing just who might show up on any given night to get a dose of “spiritual encouragement with no judgment,” she says, so they could gather tools to help them survive their daily struggles. “I gave to the women what I wished had been given to me when I walked in their shoes.”
Truth is, Laboy began walking in their shoes when she found herself pregnant at 15 years old while living in Peoria, Ill. Statistics prove that the lives of teen mothers typically spiral downward with the onset of pregnancy and they struggle for the rest of their lives to climb their way out of poverty. Laboy’s name is not found among those statistics. Neither is Nicole McGruder, the child born to a teenage mother, who is now a business professional with both MA and MBA degrees. Her youngest child, Adrian Clifton, is finishing her dissertation for a PhD in Education and Literacy at the University of Missouri.
Rather than allowing pregnancy to sidetrack her, she graduated from high school and afterwards enrolled in Bradley University to pursue a business degree. However, she dropped out during her junior year to move to Hannibal, Mo., to assume the role of caretaker for her ailing grandparents. That’s where she met her Mama Jean.
Jean Dean was a 50-year-old receptionist at her dentist’s office who became like a surrogate mother. “She took me home and I became her brown daughter,” Laboy brags. “She schooled me about life. I was this wild little thing from the inner city of Peoria, Ill, and she told me who I was created to be and all the great opportunities that were available for me.” Now 87 years old, Mama Jean lights up when she talks about LaBoy. “Well yes… she’s my child!” she says emphatically. “She was dear to me right from the start. We just hit it off.”
What Laboy learned and experienced in her relationship with Mama Jean became the DNA of just about every mentoring opportunity and grass roots movement she’s launched since then. She experienced, first-hand, the power that comes from relationships built on a strong foundation of mutual respect, love and trust.
Today, Laboy’s motto is “We teach what we most need to learn,” and giving up was never an option. She learned to view setbacks as a training ground for growth. “I failed so many times at so many things and that just freed me up to try something else,” she says. She did eventually return to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Columbia College in 2003. “I wanted to make my ceiling my children’s floor,” she explains.
Earlier this year, along with daughters McGruder and Clifton, she launched the Worley Street Roundtable (WRS), a non-profit organization whose mission is to get parents back involved in the public school system to provide support for marginalized students: African Americans, Latinos, students receiving free or reduced-price meals, English-language-learners, and at-risk students with a special education plan. On Sunday afternoons, parents, teachers, pastors, physicians, counselors and administrators gather around the dining room table at the manor to enjoy a potluck meal together while they plot a course to strengthen ties between parents and the school system. During the week, WSR members meet with school administrators and attend Columbia City Council and school board meetings. Superintendent Dr. Peter Stiepleman recently attended WSR where he got a chance to hear the group’s concerns and learn of their initiatives to help improve the educational experience of struggling students and their families. WSR members were thrilled to receive the superintendent’s enthusiastic support for what they are doing to help kids prosper in public school.
Laboy is convinced that “time and resources spent on a child are never wasted… never!” And for this social entrepreneur, time spent at the Worley Street Manor, whether straggler or struggler, is never wasted either. At the end of the day, all she really wants is to be an inspiration for others. “I want to hear that someone’s life is better because they were in relationship with me,” she muses. “I want to hear that they were going to give up, but decided to do this life because they found their purpose!”