ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
We never know where our life’s journey will take us. Even when there are hints as we are growing up, most of us still have little idea about how we will live out our lives. Gloria J. Clark is no exception. Born and reared by parents who loved her and wanted the best for their nine children, Clark learned early on the importance of helping others. “My most memorable experience growing up as a child was learning from our parents how to look out for others,” she says. “Even today I am still looking out for people less fortunate than I am.”
One of the ways that Clark looks out for others is through her participation in the Witness Project of Northeast Louisiana. As a cancer survivor herself, Clark knows firsthand the importance of this survivors’ support network for African-American women. Once a recipient of their cancer education and resources to help cope with her own disease and treatments, Clark today is a dispenser of those gifts to others desperate for information and comfort. In recognition of her personal strength and endurance as well as that of thousands of other cancer survivors and lifers in our region, Gloria J. Clark is our October BayouIcon.
n many ways Concordia Parish represents “home” for Gloria Clark even though she lives in Ouachita Parish. Concordia is where her family first lived. Her parents, Ben Clark Sr. and Ida Green-Clark, were both born in the tiny village of Frogmore. Neither completed high school, but both were hard workers determined that their children would have even better lives than they had.
After marrying, the couple settled in Ferriday. Clark’s father worked on a farm as a laborer. He planted a large garden that kept the family supplied with fresh vegetables, and raised hogs and chickens for their table. Her mother worked as a custodial worker in the local schools. Although Clark’s paternal grandparents had passed away before she was born, her maternal grandparents (“Big Momma” and “Granddaddy”) lived close by and were an important part of Clark’s growing up. “Our family gatherings during the holidays and summertime were a great fellowship,” she remembers. “It was always large and there was plenty of good food!”
Clark was the oldest girl and 4th born among her siblings. With their parents’ encouragement and their own hard work, all graduated high school and several earned college degrees. Three of Clark’s sisters (Vivian Clark-Hollis, Pearl Clark, and Henrietta Clark-Williams) have passed away. Vivian worked at General Motors and then as a sitter, Pearl was a registered nurse, and Henrietta was a teacher. Her surviving sister, Mary Clark-Conner, worked as a sitter until her retirement. Clark has four brothers (Isaac, Ben, William, and Robert). Isaac was a supervisor with the Chicago Transit Authority before retiring; Ben is a podiatrist; William was a mortician and a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority before retiring; and Robert is pastor of several churches.
The work ethic that their parents instilled in their children is obvious from the successes that they have made in their lives. “During our childhood, our parents made sure we kept up with our schoolwork and our assigned chores around the house,” Clark remembers. “Even though our parents weren’t educated, my siblings and I were all smart. Several of us received scholarships for college to pursue our degrees.”
Clark remembers several individuals who were important mentors for her during her early years. One was Mrs. Elizabeth Fields, one of the mothers at Sunflower Baptist Church where Clark attended. Clark admired her mannerisms and appreciated the encouragement to “be the best person I can be” that Mrs. Fields often gave to her. Another was her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Davis. Clark loved her pleasant personality and admired the way she dressed. But it was her brothers whom Clark credits with being perhaps the most important mentors for her. “My oldest brothers showed me their success while attending college and how it could improve my lifestyle,” Clark says.
Clark graduated from Sevier High School in Ferriday with honors in 1966. Her early career goal was to be a nurse, but she put that goal aside because of her fear of seeing blood being drawn from someone else’s body. She received her Bachelor’s in Elementary Education in 1971 from Grambling State University. In 1973, Clark earned her Master’s in Special Education from Northeast Louisiana University (now ULM), and her Plus 30 from there in 1975.
During her college studies, Clark did student teaching in both regular education classes and special education classes. She found that she was drawn to teaching special education. She knew that she wanted to help those students who had disabilities.
Defining Her Life Through Education
The first job that Clark remembers is babysitting – a clear indicator of her love for children. “I got this job because the people knew my parents and that we were trustworthy,” Clark says. “It taught me that I had the ability to handle small children and the patience to assist them with their needs.”
After graduating from high school in 1966, Clark decided to take off a year from college and moved to Chicago where her oldest brother lived. While living in Chicago, she worked at the Montgomery Ward Department Store there. It wasn’t until her third job – as a special education teacher at Berg Jones Elementary School in Monroe – that she finally found herself in the classroom, working with the special children who needed her the most. “I had an excellent supervising teacher, Mrs. Joyce Bassett,” Clark says, “and she and those children prepared me for my 50-year-journey in teaching,” Clark says.
Later Clark became an administrator for the Monroe City School System serving as supervisor of the Pupil Appraisal/Special Education Department. When her mother became ill, Clark retired from that position in 2004 and took a teaching position in the Natchez Adams School System in Natchez, Mississippi. Following her mother’s death, Clark moved back to Monroe and accepted a teaching position at Shady Grove Elementary School for the Ouachita Parish School System. After that assignment, Clark rejoined the Monroe City School System as a special education teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary. Her last assignment before her second retirement earlier this year was at Barkdull Faulk Elementary. “I loved teaching because I had the opportunity to put into practice the things that I had taught other teachers during my time in administration,” she says. “I could use in my classroom the things that I had taught them about how to get the most from the children who have disabilities and different learning styles.”
“Family” became a motto for Clark throughout her teaching days. “I always instilled in my students that we were a family – a family that assisted each other when there was a need,” she recalls. “I truly loved my students and wanted them to be a success and to achieve their maximum potential. I loved seeing my students grasp the concepts and learn along with their peers in the regular education classroom.” Clark’s devotion to her students went well beyond the classroom as is the case with so many committed teachers. “I often used my personal money to see that my students could be included in all aspects of the school’s extracurricular activities,” she says. That enrichment no doubt made a significant difference in her students’ quality of life.
Although optimistic and determined to be the very best teacher she could be, Clark is also realistic about the challenges that came along with teaching. The lack of supplies and materials that teachers need to do their very best work for their students was a common problem. A second, less obvious challenge was the lack of proper training for teachers who found themselves dealing with special needs students, some of whom required such specialized care as the ch anging of their feeding tubes. The third challenge came to light only recently: the COVID-19 pandemic. Dealing with special needs children through virtual lessons created an even more difficult environment for both teachers and students.
Family Means Everything
In 1976, Clark married Freddie Earl Bynum, Sr. in a small family wedding. Though the couple would have two sons, the marriage ended in divorce in 1991. Those two sons are grown now. Freddie II (who the family calls “Earl”) drives for UPS in Lake Charles. Benji is a physician and is the portfolio director for Private Sector Engagement Colorado Health Foundation in Denver, Colorado. Clark adores her grandson, Freddie III (“Trey.”) Trey is a sophomore in high school in Lake Charles.
Clearly family means everything not only to Clark, but also to Clark’s family. For her 70th birthday, her sons and grandson together with two of Clark’s nieces hosted a lovely celebration at a local restaurant in her honor. The elegant affair was attended by Clark’s family and friends. “This occasion will always stand out in my life,” Clark says. “I know that being a mom is one of my greatest successes.”
For Clark, “family” is defined beyond her students and her biological family. It also includes the community. In spite of having a busy career in special education, Clark has always found time to work within the volunteer sector. She served on the Monroe Beautification Board as liaison representative for educational activities/projects in Monroe City Schools during LaVerne Bodron’s tenure as director there. She is also a lifetime member of Delta Sigma Theta Sigma Sorority, Inc. and has served as treasurer and financial secretary for the group. In addition, she was chairperson for the sorority’s Black History, Founders Day, and Social Action Committees.
Her community volunteerism has included voter registration drives, HIV/AIDS Awareness conferences, Stop the Violence rallies, and community litter abatement drives. Never one to be still for long, Clark looks forward to volunteering at St. Francis Medical Center or the Ouachita Council on Aging as soon as she completes her recovery from knee replacement surgery. “Volunteering is essential for a community because elected officials cannot carry out the projects/activities by themselves,” Clark explains. “It takes a whole village for a community to survive. Everyone needs to do their part to make a community vital and attractive to new businesses.”
An Unexpected Detour Along Life’s Journey
In May 2009, Clark received news that was to change her life: a cancer diagnosis. She had been careful to have annual checkups and a mammogram so the diagnosis was a complete surprise. One of her sisters had died from lung cancer, and two of her brothers had been diagnosed with prostate cancer so she understood something about the disease.
Because her tumor was small, Clark elected to have a lumpectomy. After a year, her mammogram was normal; the second year, however, revealed benign cysts in both of her breasts. In consultation with her doctor, Clark decided that a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery was the best course of treatment for her. Being actively involved in her treatment decisions helped Clark to cope during this traumatic time. She credits the support of loved ones and dear friends as well as her continuing work as a teacher with giving her invaluable support. “I was not depressed because I had a good supportive system of friends, family members, and church members,” Clark recalls. “I spent most of my time with God by speaking and praying.”
The Witness Project of Northeast Louisiana
A decade before Clark’s cancer surgery, The Witness Project of Northeast Louisiana LLC was formed in 1999. Two women, Dr. Florencetta Gibson and Mrs. Bernadine Adams, had attended an informational meeting at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock to learn about starting a chapter in northeast Louisiana. The Witness Project had been founded there in 1990. Together with other concerned partners, they established this vital resource for underserved African-American women. To date, there has been no break in the service activities carried out by this chapter.
ver the past 20+ years, the Witness Project has met monthly at First Baptist Missionary Church. Not even COVID-19 could stop their mission. They continued meeting via conference calls, regular emails, and texts – maintaining contact with their members during this particularly stressful time.
Part of the work of the Witness Project is to recruit and train women to be resources for African-American women whether they are cancer survivors or not. By educating women about breast and cervical cancer through culturally appropriate cancer education and empowerment messages, the group hopes to increase awareness.
When Clark was diagnosed, the Witness Project was there for her. The members provided important emotional support, of course, but the meetings also gave Clark an opportunity to discuss her situation with others who had undergone similar experiences. “The Witness Project meetings are very informative,” Clark says. “Often there are guest speakers and consultants who enlightened all of us on the latest trends and techniques in breast health.”
Within the northeast chapter there are more than 30 years of breast cancer survivorship. These women are the mentors and role models that other women need in order to work through a difficult time. “Women of the Witness Project have also attended treatment appointments with other women still in treatment,” Clark says. “That support means the world!”
The Pink Ball is an annual highlight for the Witness Project members. It is a fundraiser that showcases the women who are survivors. (Clark is chairperson for the Silent Auction Committee.) Each woman is introduced and the number of years that she has survived is announced. After the introductions, Clark says that the survivors participate in a New Orleans style Second Line parade to celebrate their survivorship. “Watching women and men dance and parade with such enthusiasm fills the hearts of each person in the room,’ Clark says. “The Witness Project if about providing education; however, watching such a display of joy never fails to instill hope!”
Now that she has retired (again), Clark has some travel wishes. She would love to visit Paris, Jerusalem, and Africa. Of these, Jerusalem is her first choice so that she can gain spiritual insight and see the places she has studied about in her Bible.
When not traveling, Clark can be found watching old movies and listening to blues and jazz music. A perfect day? Awakening at 7:30a.m., drinking a cup of green tea, taking her morning medicines, and reading Daily Bread and her Bible. Then she would go back to bed for two more hours (with no phone calls, please). Only then would she get out of bed and prepare her breakfast. The rest of that perfect day? Watching Lifetime movies!
When asked if she could have lunch with anyone, living or dead, with no restrictions, Clark quickly responded, “I would love to have lunch with Rosa Parks. I admire her and what she stood for in those days.” The conversation would be about the challenges of life and how to overcome them. The location for lunch? “The place would be at a good soul food place or nice restaurant that serves a variety of things,” Clark says.
Wherever her life’s journey takes her, no doubt Clark will still be smiling and encouraging others. In many ways she has enriched (and saved!) not only her own life, but the lives of countless others. As author Mandy Hale once wrote, “There is nothing more beautiful than someone who goes out of their way to make life beautiful for others.” Gloria J. Clark has spent a lifetime doing just that.