ALLENDALE- Lottie Lewis passed the little house on the corner of Wagner Street every day. The windows were boarded. The paint was chipped. There was trash on the porch and weeds sprouted between the steps.
There were too many houses like this in her hometown of Allendale, Lewis thought.
A lack of jobs meant many people just up and left their homes.
But as time passed, Lewis, an Allendale city council member and community activist, began to see the house as something other than blight. She saw opportunity to fill one of Allendale’s biggest needs: a safe gathering place for local children, some of whose parents travel more than two and a half hours on buses one-way to work in wealthy communities including Hilton Head Island.
The long commutes mean many kids in the poor, rural area are without parents until 7:30 or 8:00 p.m.
So Lewis and her husband, Frank, bought the ramshackle house and poured three years of work into improvements.
Now what was once nearly a ruin will soon open as a community center.
“It will be a place for a child to go when they don’t want to be alone,” Lottie Lewis said. “When mom is still on the island and they need somebody to help with homework, when they need someone to talk to. It will be a safe haven.”
The purple lady
Near the entrance of the house hangs a picture of a well-dressed elderly woman in a purple shall.
Her name is Emma Lee Polite, Lottie Lewis’ mother. This house has come to be known as Emma’s House.
“She’s where this all started, you could say,” Lottie Lewis said, looking at the picture in its elaborate frame. “With a name like Polite, she taught us we better live up to it.”
Polite was known around Allendale as the Purple Lady for her signature outfit color. She would walk through the streets in Allendale in full makeup and purple attire to pick up litter and watch over the children in the neighborhood where her husband and their six kids, including Lottie Lewis, lived.
“She was who you went to if any of the kids had a problem,” Lottie Lewis said. “People would watch out for each other’s kids back then. It was a front porch culture, where a neighbor would help raise you.”
Polite was what brought Lottie Lewis back to Allendale about 15 years ago. She had spent a career in New Jersey when Polite was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
So she retired and moved back to be with her mother.
But the place had changed a lot since Lottie Lewis was a kid.
Generational poverty had worsened after the decline of what was once the area’s major industries — agriculture, tourism and a nuclear power plant.
There also wasn’t that culture of adults watching each other’s kids from their front porch anymore.
So when her mother passed away a few years after she returned, Lottie Lewis took up where the Purple Lady left off.
Always dressed in style like her mother, Lewis took the city council seat her dad once held and began organizing neighborhood councils to make Allendale a better place.
She became one of the town’s most active champtions, helping to create a community garden, working on the art council and helping to start a regular farmers market.
Her husband, Frank Lewis, began working as a volunteer handyman for the people in town that needed help, including building wheelchair ramps for 68 homes that needed them.
Much of the the couple’s work brought them in contact with the kids of Allendale, giving them a close-up view of the problems they faced.
“They come in and I see that some are just so angry,” Lottie Lewis said. “Some for good reason, but we have to meet them where they are. We have to teach them it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Many children in Allendale live in single-family homes, said Camille Nairn, another Allendale community activist.
“If their parent is working, there is usually just nobody there,” Nairn said. “And I know that an after school program will be a lot better than being lonley at home without anybody there to get you a snack, nobody to talk to or help you with school.”
The house on the corner
When the couple started work on the house, a walk through the building raised fears that the floor would cave in.
But Frank Lewis put in years of work, fixing the place up almost entirely himself with new hardwood floors, walls, wiring and purple trimmings, in honor of Polite.
Lottie Lewis named the non-profit organization behind the house, Emma’s Helping Hands, in her mother’s honor.
Except for installing central heating and air, the house is ready to become the after-school center with a room full of books and games, a large wood country table where the kids can eat together or do homework, a kitchen and bedrooms where kids can nap.
Other community members have pitched in too, agreeing to help with classes about computers, the arts and karate for the kids.
The house will be ready to open before Christmas. Lottie Lewis hopes it will be one of many projects that will fight against the hardships Allendale faces and help the children affected.
“I feel like I’m part of a fight to keep Allendale nice.” Lewis said. “It’s known for having less, but there are people here that care about it, that are fighting for its future.”