Third Unitarian Church celebrated Roberta Wilson over the weekend.
Wilson, who turned 95 this week, was honored at the church’s 11 a.m. Sunday service. Since joining the congregation in 1968, she’s become a cornerstone of the church, devoting her life to finding ways to help Austin residents and churchgoers.
“It has always been my proposition to work with the community,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who was born in Thomson, Georgia, to a family of nine children, moved to Chicago in 1943. She first came to Third Unitarian when the church invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak in the late 1960s.
She remembers that Dr. King went to Resurrection Church first and did not make it to Third Unitarian, so instead, she and other congregation members along with Third Unitarian’s minister, Donald H. Wheat, went to Resurrection to hear King speak.
“That’s what made me come to Third (Unitarian), it was Dr. King and Rev. Wheat,” Wilson said. “And I consider Third (Unitarian) my family.”
They have both been important figures guiding her work in Austin.
“I appreciate the service that Dr. King and Reverend Wheat offered to me as a person, and I appreciate whatever they’ve done and instilled into me to help somebody in the West Side.”
Wilson has found the best way to help the West Side is through education. “This is life. Without an education, you can’t survive.”
In 1974, Wilson co-founded Third Unitarian’s Austin Scholars Award Program, a scholarship program that awards seniors in high school with a stipend to financially support their first year in college.
At the time, Wilson and five other church members, including Rev. Wheat and Earl Williams, who was then principal of Austin Community Academy, found the best way for the church to support the community was through the scholarship program, said David Boulanger, a longtime member of Third Unitarian.
Lorrie Akins, a member of the church’s scholarship committee, said Wilson’s commitment to providing support to students and giving them a leg up is clear. “She’s very concerned about providing ways for people in her community to have access to education and better education.”
Education teaches people to help others who are in need and to work with others toward a common goal, said Wilson, who worked as a paraprofessional for Chicago Public Schools but never went to college herself.
“Education is the key, to working with each other, to help each other,” Wilson said. “If we don’t help each other, we can’t survive.”
Since its beginning nearly 50 years ago, the program has provided scholarships to over 500 high school students in their first year of college. Every year, 10 to 20 high school students who live in Austin or attend a district-run public school in Austin receive a grant to help with their college education.
In the past, students received a $1,000 stipend in two installments. Starting this year, students will receive an additional $500 stipend at the beginning of their sophomore year in college, said Charles Gunn, a member of the church’s scholarship committee.
When she co-founded so many years ago, Wilson wanted it to be a permanent effort. She continues to participate as a member of the Austin Scholars Award Program Committee, serving as a co-chair, and every year, she reviews students’ applications and interviews them.
Wilson also helps fundraise for the program and asks fellow church members, civic leaders, and Austin and Oak Park residents to serve as mentors to the scholarship winners.
“I keep in touch, and I’m always asking for money for scholarships,” she said. “I say scholarships, scholarships, scholarships.”
Sunday’s service celebrated Wilson’s nearly century of life as well as her 48 years of work with the Austin Scholars program.
“We are so lucky to have Ms. Wilson as an active member of Third Unitarian,” said Deborah Donovan, who’s been a member of Third Unitarian for 35 years.
Beyond the church, Wilson has been recognized for her efforts to support education in Austin. In 2011, she was inducted into the Illinois Senior Hall of Fame. And in 2008, she was inducted into the Chicago Senior Hall of Fame.
It may be her sense of purpose that keeps her going. Go-getter, dynamic, active are some of the adjectives her fellow church members and friends use to describe Wilson.
“I want get to a 100 … I want to have many, many, many more birthdays to come,” Wilson said. “I wake up in the morning, and I just say thank God that I woke up this morning. I say now I’m gonna help somebody. I really wanna help the seniors, and I’m a senior myself.”
She stays in touch with several students who were awarded scholarships and continues to give them advice. “They come to see me, they call me.”
Wilson often reflects on what her parents taught her: Whatever you do, do your best. Wilson wants to see everyone in the community – young people, senior citizens, parents, neighbors – doing their best.
And she leads by example, as she is now focused on learning something new herself.
“I wanna still learn how to dance, but I can’t dance no more,” Wilson said. “But I’m trying like heaven to learn how to dance again.”
Churchgoers applaud her drive and attitude. Notes Boulanger, who’s 81 himself, “What I think Roberta has demonstrated to all of us is how you can continue to live an active life as an elderly person.”