Poverty has a face in Columbia, and that face belongs to the champion of the 1st Ward.
Almeta Crayton is the real deal, tirelessly working for change in the central city, exhorting her neighbors to help themselves and dinging her fellow Columbians to just give the disadvantaged a chance.
“I think being able to give a real face to poverty is the way I can have some influence,” Crayton says. “I’m a low-income mother myself and I try to show others you can make a difference.”
The third-term City Council member says, “The Lord blessed me when I got on the City Council. Columbia has been good to me.” First elected in 1999 on her second attempt, Crayton appeals to a core constituency of “people just like me who just need a second chance. On the council, I’m able to explain what we need in the 1st Ward. The little person needs a voice because often people don’t notice those in a different economic area.”
She spreads her message of self-improvement through honesty, character, respect and trust wherever she goes, whether working at Gentry Middle School, staffing the Successful Neighborhood Resource Center or counseling others to look to themselves for changing their lot in life.
At the Successful Neighborhood Resource Center on Lincoln Drive, a gathering place for kids and adults, Crayton is an available ear, commanding respect and ready to listen to people that “nobody else wants to talk to.”
“I try to have empathy,” she says. “You have to put yourself in that mess and get them to help themselves. I tell them, ‘you may not be responsible for what you’re born to, but that doesn’t mean you have to wallow in it.’
“I see the world differently.”
The words flow easily when she tells her story, hoping others will see themselves in it.
“I just tell them the story of my life,” she says. “I’ve gone through so much heartache myself, they think it can’t get worse. It was so easy for me to slip through the cracks, but I had people who stayed on me, whispered stuff to me to keep me in line.”
Raised by her grandparents in St. Louis, Crayton came to Columbia in 1992, a single mother with a young son plagued by health problems since his premature birth two years earlier. She still relied on her grandparents for advice and then met an older couple who mentored her in Columbia, Madge and Sherman Brown.
“They were my cheerleaders,” she says. “We’d meet at the kitchen table for a strategy meeting. If there was something wrong in my life, I heard about it from them.”
Estranged from her mother, Crayton says it took a long time for the daughter to become friends with the mother, “but healing comes. I had to grow up and get closer to God to understand her.”
And there is her son, Tyrone, now 16 years old.
“That’s what drives me,” she says. “Not politics. I couldn’t give up because I had a child to take care of. We have good days and bad days, but I stay on him. We’re not rich, but we do things together.”
She is inspired by everyday people, those who see a real person in her, rather than the perfect images on television. Her message hits home, sometimes in surprising ways.
“I’ll be working on the playground and the kids will come up to me and ask me why my picture was in the paper,” she says. “One day right before Thanksgiving, a little girl said she saw me on the news talking about running out of canned goods to feed the hungry.
“She said, ‘I’m going to bring you two cans.’ And the very next day she brought me a can of beans and a can of corn.
“The kids — they get it.”
Editor’s note: Almeta Crayton passed away on Oct. 21, 2013. This article originally ran in the March 2006 issue of Inside Columbia magazine.