by Taki S. Raton
Milwaukee’s Magazine’s January 2008 cover issue headlines her as a “Little Lady-Big Job.”
Leaning in the southwest corner of her modest office is the American flag. She was honored November 20, 1998 with the National Caring Award presented by the Caring Institute.
The awards ceremony was held at the White House. The flag leaning in that southeast corner was flying roof top over the Oval Office at the time of her award.
Mrs. Cordelia Taylor does indeed have a huge job. But she also has a huge heart and a loving spirit to effectively and passionately assume her task.
She is founder and director of Family House, a residential longterm care facility that has served the Milwaukee community for over 20 years.
Located at 3269 North 11th Street, Family House services men and women who are 55-years and older. As the name implies, Family House is a facility that offers care in a home like setting, creating a community that becomes a family.
Mrs. Taylor takes pride that her initiative provides its elderly residents with experienced Certified Nursing Assistance on a 24-hour basis in a comfortable environment that does not resemble any facility in the city offering the same level of service.
Taylor first came to Milwaukee with her husband, James, around the mid-1950’s.
In April of 1960, the Taylors moved on North 11th Street right in the heart of central-city Milwaukee. In 1975 while working for American Motors, the company moved her husband to the Toledo, Ohio plant. Taylor was able during this time in Toledo to earn her nurse’s license. American Motors soon moved the Taylors back to Wisconsin five year later in 1980. They brought a house in suburban Brown Deer and in 1983, she became director of nursing at the Plymouth Manor Nursing Home on Sixth and Walnut Street in Milwaukee.
In 1986, Taylor received her administrator’s license. She was then promoted to administrator of the home. According to Michael E. Hartmann in his “Wisconsin Interest” writing on Family House, company officials came to Taylor and expressed to her that the nursing home was not making enough money. The operation was described as providing close to the bare necessities in residential care:
“I couldn’t take what was going on in the nursing homes,” she said in the Hartman account. “There wasn’t enough to do in what needed to be done. Things just aren’t the way they should be.”
Barbara J. Elliott in “Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities,” recounts this eye-opener period in Taylor’s career as she describes how the administrator, “saw people who had a sparkle in their eye when they came in, but they lost the motivation to live.”
Taylor further witnessed for example the application of arbitrary rules for residents “that were convenient for the staff but hampered the quality of life for the elderly. She saw care driven more by costs than by caring.”
Seeing that the patient’s needs were often placed second to the desire for profits, Taylor made some suggestions as to how the operation could be improved to better meet the needs of the residents. Her ideas were rejected. But drawing upon her Mason, Tennessee upbringing during the challenging era of Jim Crow, Cordelia Taylor was not a quitter.
With the spirit and the drive to make a better life for those in her care and for those of whom she cared about, she shared with her husband her frustration, pain and sorrow for what she was then experiencing at the nursing home.
He in response challenged her to open her own residential treatment center for the elderly that would, in the words of Elliot, “be more like a real home and make care available to them regardless of their income.”
She accepted her husband’s challenge and decided to open her own center. Although the Brown Deer address was very reflective of the fruit of their hard work, Taylor and her family in the mid-80’s opted to move back on 11th Street where they left years prior.
After fixing up their house room-by-room and meeting the requirements for a Community-Based Residential Facility (CBRF) in the midst of what has been noted as an environment of “crime and squalor,” this first Family House facility opened with eight residents.
The “crime and squalor” however were very real on this 11th Street block. Reportedly, members of the GDN (Gangster Disciple Nation) gang and a rival nearly nightly had shooting matches with bullets “zinging” over the backyard of their house.
As described in Elliot, the elderly residents had to hide under their beds and during all hours`, drug dealers “shamelessly trafficked” within the neighborhood counting on the resident’s fear that they would not be reported to the police. A building in the alley behind her center was described as a “drive-through drug pickup.”
“Cordelia,” writes Elliot, “was incensed with their brazen trafficking and walked out boldly to tell the dealers to take their business elsewhere. One man pulled a gun on her. ‘I told him to go ahead and shoot. He’d just get me to heaven faster than I had planned to go.’ She fixed him with her steady gaze, and he slowly lowered the gun. Then he put it in his pocket and said, ‘I won’t be back, lady, you can have this neighborhood.’”
She complained to the police about the shooting and the activity on her block. The police were uncaring and unresponsive.
But in her own words, Taylor vividly recalls that she was so fed up with the 11th Street conditions that she drove down to police headquarters and told them in no uncertain terms that unless they took action and cleaned up her block, she would take her story of the gangs and drugs to the area television station. In no time, even before she could return home good enough, police cars were swarming the neighborhood.
Taylor had the courage to stand up to rival gangs, face down drug dealers and demand respect and action from the local authorities.
This one African American woman of slight statue, big heart and an undying spirit, alone, save for the support of her family, changed the climate and presence of an entire neighborhood.
What began as one Family House has now expanded to encompass nearly a whole block with 7 units housing 58 residents manned by a staff of 51 employees on a 24- hour, 7-day shift.
The residents each have their own rooms with a TV, hand-made quilts thrown across their chairs and their names on the doors. There are no mandatory clock hours as in the earlier facility she left. Family House residents can retire to bed whenever they wish, stay up and watch TV and feel at home.
The seven adjacent houses are connected in the rear with an accessible wheelchair wooden deck painted brown, lending the opportunity for mobility, sitting in the sun and sharing quality time with neighbors.
Multiple garden plots provide the opportunity for residents and young visitors who volunteer to work with the seniors to grow vegetables and learn about plants and gardening. The gardens are raised from the ground so that the wheelchair-bound can easily seed and cultivate their own plots.
In addition to long-term elderly care, Family House offers youth educational and leadership programs, a youth summer camp, after school tutoring, a food and clothing pantry, asthma management education, a medical health clinic, and an improvement in local area housing.
Family House has also provided community and economic development, job creation, a stabilization of the local area tax base, a reduction of crime, a sizable decrease in area usage of illegal drugs and alcohol and a provision of local and accessible positive role models.
“Committing herself to the needs of the community, Mrs. Taylor believes that if you’ve lived in a community that has been good to you, you should give back,” as cited in the Spring 2009 edition of Alliance for Aging Research.
“This is why she’s gone beyond the resident facilities and reached out to the neighborhood with services, employment, and friendship,” adds this feature.
She was awarded at $50,000 “Use Your Life Award” from Oprah’s Angel Network and a host of numerous additional awards dating back from 1989. Among them are the 1995 and 1999 Governor Tommy Thompson Certificate of Commendations, the 1995 Official Recognition by Mayor John O. Norquist, the 1999-2000 Elite Who’s Who Among Outstanding Females Executive Award, the January 17, 2000 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award and the 20th Annual Black Women’s Network Recognition Award.
“Aging can be a difficult and challenging period. The Family House is a blessing for those in the African American community who are facing this season in their life,” shares Dr. William Rogers, Chairman of the Family House Board of Directors.
He adds that “this resident facility was designed to offer compassionate and loving care to elders in need of assisted living care.
Ms. Taylor has been diligent and passionate in making sure Family House can lovingly meet the needs of its residents. This residence is truly an ‘oasis’ and clearly a ‘bridge over trouble waters’ for seniors who seek its services.”
Many have called Mrs. Cordelia Taylor an “amazing woman” as cited in Alliance. “But it’s not amazing,” she replies.
“It’s what people do in life. God doesn’t have big or little projects for people. Whatever He gives you to do, you do, and you do it to the best of your ability.