DeMarko Coleman and Teresa Wright connect over a bagel sandwich. Photos by Keith Borgmeyer The unlikely friendship between DeMarko Coleman and Teresa Wright started...
Photos by Keith Borgmeyer
Community activist Verna Laboy shows up every day to contribute — to make Columbia a place for people to thrive, not just survive.
Verna moved to town in the late 1980s to take a position with the Division of Family Services. She and her four children came from a broken home, and she was ready to start over. “I didn’t know a soul in Columbia,” she shares, “so I took a leap of faith to come here and make a life. Then I just got busy.”
Verna started loving on her community in the first place she had access: as a PTA mom at Rock Bridge Elementary. Then she got involved with Girl Scouts, an organization she credits with saving her life. She also began seeing problems to solve in her neighborhood.
“So what I began doing was tearing up the yard, planting flowers, and beautifying my surroundings,” Verna says. She worked with her landlord to beautify the flower boxes and plant salmon-colored geraniums around the mailboxes.
“Then I hired the baddest kids in the neighborhood to be Miz Verna’s flower police,” she says with a smile. “They got paid a quarter to give me a flower report at the end of the day.”
Everyone thought she was the landlord. “I’m just wired that way,” Verna says. “I’m a fighter on the inside. I’m a rebel by nature. I don’t know that I’m out to prove anything, I just believe that I have some ideas and ways of thinking that can help.”
Living on Mission
Verna says she’s on a mission to make things better. “I’m not waiting on the government to come rescue me, because it’s not going to happen,” she shares. “The answers are within us, the people. As I’ve grown and matured, I’ve found my voice and realized I have a lot power. I can sit around and complain about everything that’s wrong, or I can get up and do something about it.”
In 1990, Verna met her husband, Gil, the kitchen manager at Murry’s, and they were married four years later. They purchased an old Victorian house on Worley Street and began fixing it up.
“When we bought that house, there was a lot of drug activity going on around the neighborhood,” Verna says. Her solution? She went door to door and with a clipboard and a pen and started the Smithton Valley Neighborhood Association in partnership with Calvary Baptist Church. “In terms of density, it was the largest neighborhood association in the city,” she recalls. “It operated for several years.”
Next, Verna got busy and went back to school. She managed to turn a thank-you note from Dr. Terry Smith, the dean of academic affairs at Columbia College, into a full-time job in the school’s financial aid office, which came with free tuition.
“So, I’m not one to sit and be a victim. I’m always going to be a victor,” Verna says. “I can sit and cower and feel sorry for myself or I can just show up.”
Verna admits she was often invisible at those early PTA meetings, but she just kept showing up. “I volunteered to lead a committee and they were forced to work with me,” Verna says. “I’m always pushing myself and creating opportunities because that’s when people see how awesome I am.”
As Verna looks out her window, or does work in her yard, she sees issues that pain her, and she addresses them by convening people. Her passion led her to start more groups out of her home at 611 E. Worley, including the Worley Street Roundtable. She has a network she’s willing to share, and she wants to move initiatives that are working forward.
“I came to live out loud. This is the way I’m wired,” Verna says. “I want life to be better for those who have been in relationship with me. I want to dispense hope and encouragement, and be a model of being brave, being bold, and getting it done.”
A New Assignment
At age 60, Verna is willing to let the next generation take over, but her community won’t seem to let her. They keep her busy.
“I am honored today to be a health educator for the City of Columbia, leading an initiative under the Live Well Boone County umbrella,” Verna says. She’s addressing health disparities in black communities through the black church setting. “I set up health ministries all over the county and train lifestyle coaches, and we’re putting a dent in those disparity numbers.”
With the health project, Verna gets up every day charged to go to work. “I love what I do,” she says. “I’ve lost about 35 pounds since I took the job. The people I work with are watching me transform. I have to walk the talk.”
Believe it or not, Verna does occasionally slow down. When she does, you can usually find her in the garden. “My idea of a manicure is dirt under my fingernails,” she says. “I’m having the time of my life. This is my season. But when my husband needs time, he knows how to reel me in. He just takes me away.”
Verna also loves to cook and serve. “I have the gift of hospitality. It’s just in me,” she shares. “When I started the Worley Street Roundtable, I didn’t know what I was doing — I just invited 50 of my closest friends over for lunch!” Verna is also quick to point out that her husband isn’t the only chef in the family. “It’s not work, it’s natural for me. I get my spices out, and the herbs, and the magic happens.”
At the heart of it, Verna believes every woman is just like her. “We want the same things. We have different resources to address them, but the bottom line is that if we’re going to be successful in life, we’re going to have to activate our faith. It’s an adventure.” So Verna keeps showing up, even if she’s shaking in her shoes.
“I am so open. I don’t meet strangers, I meet friends,” she says. “I don’t have time to do the dance. Let’s get together and get this work done and move this generation forward. We can agree to disagree, but we need to work together to make Columbia better.”