ATLANTA, GA (July 28, 2016) – Mattie (Miss Mattie) Freeland was obstinate about staying in the house she had rented for decades even as the neighborhood grew more unsafe and blighted. She was determined to extend kindness to the people who lived alongside her in the city’s English Avenue community.
She died in 2008, but her life continues to inspire the neighborhood and the church she attended, New Life Covenant Church, which is now seeking to buy her house and turn it into a community center.
“Miss Mattie’s story is unique because it transcends race, social class, and time,” says Stephen Causby, chair of New Life. “She was a quintessential grandmother and good neighbor, but her life speaks as an example to all of us—that we can be major change agents, regardless of our place in life and resources. We can care for others and spark hope and vision because of the love we show.”
Shortly after Miss Mattie died, the church transformed a piece of land it owned across from her house into a community garden. The next year, the owner of an adjacent vacant lot gave permission for his land to be turned into a playground with new equipment and raised beds. One organization the church works with planted 45 trees there.
The space has become Mattie Freeland Park, and the community is working together with city officials and donors, including the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, to enhance the area. New Life members volunteer to manage events and operations for the park.
“We have held summer parties every two weeks that include food, games, live music, and a family movie night,” Causby said. “We made a large movie screen from scratch several years ago to start this tradition of summer movies. And we have seen neighbors come around to this space. Some people were hesitant at first, but we see more and more people stopping by, asking when the next event will take place.”
Now the church and community hope to raise funds for the Mattie Freeland Community House. The house would provide space for meetings, computers for neighbors to work on resumes, apply for jobs, and learn new skills, Causby says.
New Life runs a tutoring and enrichment program for high-school youth that may move into this new space. The church also is building partnerships with area colleges and nonprofits to offer classes on healthy living, financial literacy, and the arts.
More than 80 percent of the homes in the neighborhood are owned by investors or heirs outside the neighborhood, as was the case of Miss Mattie’s home, Causby said. Due to economic growth in areas near the community, housing values are expected to increase so it is important to try to purchase the home now, he added.
“This is about so much more than a park or a house,” Causby said. “It’s about people and hope. Neighborhoods like ours have been forgotten and passed over in many ways. People here are tired. Tired of politics, of planning, of promises. They want to see change and action.
“And they need hope. We simply want to see God’s hope and peace transform the hearts of people as well as an area long known for its heroin trade and dangerous streets. But isn’t that what God does? He makes all things new.”
Last year, a local artist and three neighborhood youth painted a mural on the side of Miss Mattie’s house. “It memorializes her watch over the kids, and communicates her contribution to a positive, intergenerational, diverse community,” Causby said.
On the mural painted the words, “We have dreams.”
Organizers have set up a gofundme page.