Why is Marita Willis working so hard?
“I just think that’s part of my spiritual gift,” says Marita, 65, chief empowerment officer of Hope Collaborative, a community development program serving immigrant children and their families. “The base that we serve is an eclectic group of refugees.”
“When you put a purpose on it, it doesn’t feel like work.”
Marita and her husband of 44 years, Bob, grew up “in the Park Hill housing projects. We both had single parents. I didn’t know it was a housing project the way we look at it today. I did not identify as poor. My mother never had a car. People gave to us. People would show up at our door with food, not knowing we didn’t have food.
“I grew up at the Cabbage Patch [a recreation and development program for youth],” she says. “Everything started out with prayer.”
Marita is heavily involved in the community. She’s on the board of the Louisville Water Company, is chair of MSD, and serves on the Kentucky Derby Festival Executive Board, where she was recently chair of the festival. She’s also on the boards of the Norton Foundation and the Nativity Academy at St. Boniface.
“I love Louisville,” she says. “I love this community. We are a giving community. If all of us take an opportunity to give back to the village, we can change it. We are a really divided community, and we don’t talk about it. Now we will be forced to talk about that. What changes are we going to make? Is it going to be real change or window dressing?”
Marita and her husband have suffered the loss of both of their children. Their son Rashawn died at age sixteen in the flood of 1997. Their daughter RaTonya, who had Sickle Cell disease, passed just three years ago. Both volunteered and mentored.
“Rashawn gave back a lot,” Marita says. He went to Catholic school, and she says he insisted she go to PTA meetings. “‘There are others that you could stand in for,’ he said. ‘If not you, then who?’ That drives me today.”
She feels like being involved has made Louisville her classroom.
As chair of the Kentucky Derby Festival, Marita says it was “a phenomenal experience when I rode down the street for the parade. As a child, we used to walk down to the parade. That was our Derby. The parade would resonate with me. My grandchildren and son-in-law rode with me. When we got down Broadway, the people who knew me from Park Hill, they were screaming and yelling, ‘Rita! I was looking for you! I’m so happy for you!’ I couldn’t stop crying. ‘Honey’ — my grandkids call me Honey — ‘what are you crying about?’ It was amazing. People care. They came out in full force.”
“I learned so much by being the chair. Our voice matters. We need to be present.
“Volunteering is mentally and physically good for your health. I’ve learned in the pandemic that if you are productive, you don’t have to be busy. You are getting things done, not just doing a task. It gives me something to look forward to. People think you need a lot of this and that. You need yourself and willingness to do it.”
By Marie Bradby | Photos by Melissa Donald