Just a hand up: Evelyn Wilson's relentless service
Some people move around to try to find a better neighborhood. Evelyn Wilson stays where she is and tries to make her neighborhood better.
Wilson is a bit of a legend in the small Coverdale Crossroads community tucked away off Route 404 east of Bridgeville. She serves as a community leader, cheerleader and someone people know they can go to for help. She’s the point person: She knows where the resources are, who’s offering them, and how people can get them.
Her role is that of a community connector, according to Bruce Wright, community development program manager for First State Community Action Agency, a nonprofit combating poverty. Wilson is on the agency’s board and they’ve worked together for years.
Wright isn’t the only one with a long history of working with Wilson. Over the decades Wilson has amassed a network of state agencies, leaders and businesses she can turn to when someone in Coverdale has a need.
“She’s not a case manager. She’s not some licensed practitioner that says, ‘Walk in, prop your feet up on my sofa, let’s talk about your problems,’” Wright said. “But she’s someone that community residents feel comfortable going to and saying, you know, my child needs school supplies, or I’m having problems making my electric.”
For her work over the years, Delaware State Police made her a 2020 honorary troop commander, citing her work as volunteer coordinator for after-school and mentoring programs in Coverdale; president of the Coverdale Crossroads Civic Association; board member for First State Community Action Agency; volunteer for a project that helps low-income girls get formal wear for school events; and founder of the nonprofit Just a Hand Up Community Navigation Association, among other things.
How’s that for a retired grandmother?
“She’s a driven individual … she’s a leader, point blank,” said Michelle Johnson, a Seaford resident who volunteers with Wilson and has worked with her for almost 20 years.
Wilson has expanded her reach with Just a Hand Up Community Navigation, which works in Kent and Sussex counties.
“That’s what drove her to want to start her own thing, because she just loved (helping others) and she didn’t want to just do it just for her community,” Johnson said.
The road to a nonprofit
Wilson moved to Coverdale in 1971 and never left. It’s where she raised her children with her husband of many years, James Wilson (she has two living children and nine grandchildren).
By her account, she got a nudge — or more of a persistent push — to get more involved from another community leader, Martha Massey, who was getting on in years. Wilson was working a lot back then and was reluctant, but Massey told her, “I know you can do it” and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Massey, it turned out, knew what she was talking about. Wilson started as treasurer for the community association, then became its president, and stayed with the organization for more than a decade. After stepping down from that position, she founded Just a Hand Up Community Navigation Association in 2017.
It was a continuation of work she had already done with the community council, coordinating ways to meet people’s needs. She hadn’t originally intended to do something like that, she said, it just came up. She saw a need and moved to fill it.
The name reflects some of her main goals: Connecting people with the resources to get where they need to be, and serving as a support system.
“I found that without resources, families fail, especially in a low income community. Because if you don’t know about something, how are you going to use it?” she said.
Someone like Wilson can serve as a trusted bridge. “It’s really hard to walk in and share your situation, you know what I mean?” Wright said. “It’s personal. People don’t want to walk in and ask for help because they need food, they can’t feed their family, or they’re about to have a utility cut off.”
Wilson serves as a kind of help line, a person of long experience who has memorized resources and has a phone full of contact information.
In the community, “If anyone needs anything … they say call Evelyn, because they know Miss Evelyn is the person that could get them to where they need to go,” Johnson said. In her efforts, Wilson has the help of a number of community volunteers like Johnson.
Since the goal of Wilson’s nonprofit is to serve as a connecting hub, its work doesn’t look the same from day to day. Sometimes, she said, it might be just making a phone call. Other times, the nonprofit might help people with paperwork and otherwise navigating the labyrinth of bureaucracy, or finding a home they can afford. She also organizes getting food for those who need it and musters clothing, coats and shoes. Just a Hand Up works with local businesses like poultry companies to provide holiday food boxes.
A large shed in her backyard, modified with the help of volunteers, serves as her office, and includes a space with equipment donated by the school district for local children to access computers and internet for remote learning.
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Wilson also works with state and county officials, advocating for improvements in the community like street lights and the new traffic signal that now hangs above the intersection with Route 404 at the entrance to the community.
An advocate for Coverdale Crossroads
When outsiders think of the Coverdale community, they may focus on a reputation for poverty and crime. But Wilson is a staunch defender of what she frames as a community like any other, one that has its problems but also is made up of people living life and being there for each other. Kids can play safely there as people help look out for them, she said, and she pins some issues on outsiders coming in and causing trouble.
“We reach out to one another. If something happens in Coverdale, everybody get together and take care of it … because we know one another. Because most people have been here for years, their family has been here for years.” And sometimes after people leave, they move back, she said.
“You’ve got to meet the people, and learn about the people, and you’ll have a whole different perspective about Coverdale.”
Wilson said from what she finds out in the news, she would rather live in Coverdale than in some other parts of the state, and she criticized past news coverage for focusing on the negative and misunderstanding the area.
“I wish more people would come and find out more about Coverdale for themselves,” she said, rather than making assumptions. “They’re people. Nice people. And we have fun!”
One of her focuses is on the future: the youth of the area. “We’ve got to take care of our children,” she said. She’s been at this long enough that she’s been able to watch the trajectory of young people she’s invested in.
“I've seen them grow up and do great,” she said. “... I kind of keep track of some of them, I do have a list of the ones that went to college.”
“She loves working with young people … she loves whatever she does; she puts her whole heart into whatever she does,” Johnson said.