Romano: She spent her life helping others. In death, she’s doing the same

Published February 3 2018
Updated February 3 2018

This is a story about tomorrow. And the next day. And every day we have yet to consider.

Needa Spells grew up in St. Petersburg at a time when her future seemed constrained. She was a black girl in a world that bent to white boys. Her father was gone, and her mother was not wealthy.

In the 1930s, she lived in a part of town where houses weren’t always built with extravagances such as indoor plumbing. Every day she walked past the elementary school near Mirror Lake that she was not allowed to attend, and crossed over to the south side of town to a school designated for black children.

Ms. Spells thought a lot about her tomorrows. And many years later, when she had returned to St. Pete and retired, she began a program for children in need of better tomorrows.

She took them on trips. She provided them with supplies. She taught them the value of taking care of their money and planning for the future.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Spells passed away at age 95. She had no husband and no biological children. But she still had a future. Ms. Spells left behind a sizable inheritance her attorney says will create an endowment for underprivileged children.

It was her wish to teach children how to plan for their best tomorrows.

• • •

Money was never plentiful, and life was rarely easy.

For a young black woman growing up in St. Pete, the city’s famed green benches were off-limits and so were most of the swimming spots around the Pier. School buses were reserved for white schools, so Needa and her friends would walk halfway across town to get to Gibbs High.

By the time she graduated, having been named Miss Gibbs High in 1942, Ms. Spells was ready for a change. She moved to New York and worked as a seamstress in a garment factory while attending the Parsons School of Design. She lived in Harlem and visited the fashion district in Manhattan every week to check out the new designs displayed on Fifth Avenue.

By the 1960s, her mother had taken ill and Ms. Spells returned to St. Pete to care for her. After years of living in the North, she had forgotten the realities of Jim Crow laws in the South.

She had no sooner taken her seat on a city bus when the driver stopped the vehicle and informed her she would need to sit in the back. Ms. Spells told him to open the doors. She stepped out, and walked home alone.

• • •

Sirlester Jones was 5 when her mother left for a job in Philadelphia, and left her and four siblings behind in St. Pete. Her three brothers were taken in by her great-grandmother, and she and her little sister went to live temporarily with Ms. Spells, who was a distant cousin.

Her mother never returned, and Jones didn’t leave Ms. Spells’ house until she was an adult.

"She was my mother, no matter who gave birth to me,’’ Jones said. "She was the most kind, loving, generous, giving person I knew. She was always thinking about other people.’’

When Jones was old enough to work, Ms. Spells told her it was time to pay rent. So every month, a portion of Jones’ paycheck was handed over without question.

It wasn’t until much later that Ms. Spells returned the rent payments that she had been secretly holding for Jones in a savings account.

Those were the types of lessons she had in mind when she began the Youth Security Outreach Club in St. Pete. She invited neighborhood children and created savings pouches for them. When they would get money for chores or odd jobs, she would encourage them to put a small portion in the pouch. When a child got enough money, she would open a savings account for them.

"I just had a dream that the children in my neighborhood needed to learn to earn and save and grow up and have ambition to get ahead in life,’’ Ms. Spells said on an audio recording done for a USF St. Petersburg archivist last year.

The club never grew too large — she had trouble getting parents to cooperate — but Ms. Spells would hold parties, and take the children out for breakfast and even arranged a field trip to Washington, D.C.

"That’s our mission in life,’’ she said. "To do what we can for our fellow man.’’

• • •

When Jones and her sister were old enough to move out on their own, Ms. Spells went to work as a housekeeper and caregiver in St. Pete.

Her final stop was caring for an elderly man in St. Pete Beach, and when he passed away, about a dozen years ago, he left her a generous financial bonus. She moved into a retirement community and began investing that windfall along with her savings.

As she moved into her 90s, she explained to her attorney Suzie Ward that she wanted the bulk of that money to be used for educational and financial literacy programs for children.

A meeting was arranged with the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, a facilitator for non-profits in the region, and Ms. Spells agreed to allow the foundation to administer the program. While details are still being worked out, the hope is that the returns from her investments will allow the foundation to fund a different children’s program every year in perpetuity.

"She was such an impressive woman,’’ Ward said. "She had faced adversity her entire life, a lot of segregation, a lot of discrimination, and yet she remained positive and optimistic.

"She really wanted her legacy to be providing for the under-served and the underprivileged youth, and have the most impact for the longest time. The foundation will be able to do that in a way that will honor her wish.’’