Carmita Blake learned early in life the importance of a village in raising children and providing support to families. She also learned that a village may begin with a family, but quickly grows beyond that, spreading out into the broader community.
Born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, Carmita grew up in the southwest quadrant of the city, where she lived with her sister and parents. From age six to thirteen, she spent much of her time during the summer, and other days when school was out, at the St. Elizabeth Community Center, on South Main Street, just a short walk from her home, where she enjoyed activities ranging from social events to classes in piano and ballet. It was at St. Elizabeth’s that Carmita first began to learn the value of community programs to people’s lives, and sparked her interest in some day working in community programs, and helping others.
Realizing early that she wanted a career in community health, at age fourteen Carmita began volunteering at Rockford Memorial Hospital as a “Candy Striper,” the name given to the young female hospital volunteers at that time, for the red and white striped uniforms they wore. At age eighteen, she began volunteering at the Winnebago County Health Department, where she served for two years before being hired into a paying position in the health department’s family planning department.
Following high school graduation and overlapping with her time at the health department, Carmita attended Northern Illinois University, working towards a degree in community health. During that time, she held various summer jobs as well, and, before graduating from NIU, served an internship with the American Heart Association in Rockford, where one of her first responsibilities was to clean the mannequin used for CPR training. (Click "read more," below, to read the rest of Carmita's story.)
During the early years of her career, Carmita also took on the most challenging, but most rewarding, job of her life – that of raising children. The first child to come into her life did not arrive in the usual way, but rather was the result of a bond created between Carmita, and a young mother. While working with the health department, when she was nineteen years old, Carmita had met a young woman, who, at age twelve had been referred to the Turning Point Program. Carmita crossed paths again with this young woman when they met again, four years later, at church. The young woman was now sixteen, and mother to a six-month old baby boy. Carmita’s village soon expanded to include that young mother and baby, and Carmita's family welcomed and embraced them as part of their own family.
Carmita’s immediate family – mother, father and her younger sister – with whom she still lived, had committed to helping her to help this young family that had come into her life, but when Carmita was 36, her mother died suddenly at age 57, shortly after retiring from Warner Lambert following more than thirty years of employment there. Her mother, Mildred (“Nana”) Blake, had been the heart of the family, a strong, hardworking woman, devoted to her children and husband, and her family was devastated by her death. The loss was particularly difficult for Carmita’s father, Clyde (“Best Friend”) Blake, who had health difficulties of his own. Following her mother’s death, Carmita took on the care of her father, who lived for another fifteen years, before passing away in 2012, at age 79. During that time, Carmita had a biological child of her own, a daughter, and, having taken on much of the responsibility for the little boy she had met when he was six months old, she was now raising two young children as a single parent, while caring for her aging father.
The village that Carmita’s family and others had created to help her meet all the needs that she had taken on, expanded again to include some community services. Although she had been working in paid positions since her first job at age nineteen with the Winnebago County Health Department, all those jobs had been in the field of social services, some of them had been part-time, and none were highly paid. Occasionally, Carmita reached out for help to agencies such as the City of Rockford’s Department of Human Services. LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) was a particular life-saver, helping her to keep up with the family’s heating bills during some tight times. During those same years, Carmita also helped others who had turned to city programs for help, as she worked for the local Community Action Agency of Boone and Winnebago County’s Head Start program, as a health aide.
For more than forty years, Carmita has worked or volunteered in several social service programs in the Rockford area. In addition to the Winnebago County Health Department, the American Heart Association, and Head Start, Carmita has worked with the Children’s Development Center (now Easter Seals), Rockford Health System, and Rockford Public School District 205. Much of her work with these employers has been focused on helping families and individuals who live with various challenges in the areas of financial management, mental and physical health, education, stable housing and family relationships. Through this work and her own direct experiences, Carmita has learned a great deal about local resources of all kinds, and over the years, she has put this knowledge and experience to use in helping countless Rockford residents manage their lives. One thing that she would like to see change is the feeling of stigma that’s often connected with reaching out for help. Carmita has often come up against resistance from people, especially young people, when she has suggested that they contact various services in Rockford for assistance.
Over time, Carmita’s village has expanded to also include two grandchildren, and two dogs. The grandchildren came in the usual way as the boy who she now calls her son grew into a man, met a woman and became a father at age twenty-five, Carmita’s daughter is now 28 years old, working as a Placement Specialist for School District 205, and studying for her master’s degree through the University of Illinois. The dogs were added to the family when Carmita went looking for one dog, recommended by her therapist when she was experiencing a period of depression following her mother’s death. She went to Winnebago County Animal Services and ended up adopting two dogs – a Shih Tzu named Giles and a Giant Schnoodle named Jared. Today, Carmita has a full life, and a large village. She continues to work at Easter Seals where she works with teen parents and their babies, continuing to advocate for families as they journey towards self-sufficiency, and helping those families to create and grow their own villages.
Barb Chidley is the chair of the communications committee for the Community Action Agency Advisory Board. A former teacher at Auburn High School, Barb is passionate about alleviating poverty and uplifting members of our community.
You’ve got to understand your moral responsibility - then you’ll understand why it’s important to seek knowledge and wisdom.
My pastor taught me not to be a doormat, but that if you’re in a situation that’s going to compromise your integrity, don’t respond to it - walk away. Maybe if we learned to walk away, there’d be a lot less killing.