An article about Hometown Hero Marilyn Lawson included a statement that was inaccurate from one of the teens Lawson helps mentor. The teen said that slain Oakland teenager Hadari Askari viewed Lawson "like the grandmother that he never had." Askari, however, had a grandmother who was active in his life.
OAKLAND -- Marilyn Lawson isn't related to any of the teenagers at the East Oakland housing complex where she lives, but they still call her "Granny."
Through long talks, warm meals and countless service projects, the 65-year-old cancer survivor has molded the youths of Lion Creek Crossing into a family strong enough to keep one another on the right
Lawson has effectively become a one-woman social-service agency for about two dozen high school-age residents in the 439-unit complex since it lost funding for a Boys & Girls Club program several years ago. She has helped organize mentoring programs and youth summits as well as give-and-take sessions with Mayor Jean Quan and former police Chief Anthony Batts.
Her most cherished project is an annual health fair she puts on with the teenagers offering residents straight talk about HIV -- the disease her 8-year-old granddaughter has faced since birth.
"She has a lot to deal with, but she always finds time to care and show her love no matter what is going on in her life," said Roquel Magaña,
Lawson, who has four children and seven grandchildren, has struggled most of her adult life with debilitating illnesses that forced her to stop working in her 30s.
At age 26, she was diagnosed with lupus, an immune system disorder that damaged her joints and kidneys. Lawson later suffered a stroke and survived colon cancer. She continues to battle arthritis and can only walk short distances.
"Sometimes I'm doing great and sometimes I can't get out of bed," she said.
Lawson's health became so bad during the 1980s that she had to give up her first great cause: traveling to schools and churches to debunk the myths about how HIV is contracted.
She started that work though Oakland's True Vine Ministries after welcoming an HIV-positive homeless woman into her house.
Lawson was focused mostly on her health and family six years ago when she moved to Lion Creek.
The well-manicured complex of affordable apartments replaced the infamous Coliseum Gardens housing project, but many of the teenagers still face the same struggles: families devastated by drug abuse, unemployment and the absence of positive role models.
Lawson started reaching out to them after her 20-year-old granddaughter, Candis Lawson, died of complications from sickle cell anemia. Lawson said depression kept Candis from properly caring for herself. "She really gave up," Lawson said. "She always felt like no one wanted to have a relationship with her because of the illness."
Soon thereafter, Lawson was stunned when a nearby Christian elementary school hesitated to admit her granddaughter, Tahara Lawson, because the 5-year-old was born HIV positive.
"I thought that kind of ignorance was over with, but 25 years later I found out it's still a big thing," she said.
Lawson placed her granddaughter in a different school and began the Tahara Lawson Foundation, renewing her work to teach
As with all of her projects, Lawson went about recruiting local teens from Lion Creek to help with her HIV awareness work.
It gave her an excuse to talk to them, show them that they were loved and that their lives were filled with promise.
"If you can get a child to do something positive, they'll start to listen," she said.
Leonard Moore was 14 when he met Lawson four years ago at a computer class she helped teach for free. She prodded him into helping with the health fair and mentoring programs through Oakland's Block by Block Organizing Network.
When Moore ran afoul of the law a few years ago, Lawson's message was sterner. "She pulled me aside and talked to me about some real personal stuff," he said. "I was thinking, 'Everything she's saying is true,'" Moore said. "For someone to stay on me like that and guide me in the right place, I don't know who would fill those shoes."
Lawson knows there are some subjects the teens only will discuss with their peers. The key, she said, is to get them to be positive influences on one another.
Magaña said the 20 or so teenagers who work regularly with Lawson on the health fair, youth mentoring programs and teen summits have "built a family away from home."
One member of that family was Hadari Askari, a 15-year-old aspiring firefighter, who was shot and killed just outside the complex in July.
Magaña had been assigned by Lawson to help mentor Hadari. She said he was like a little brother to her. They also both shared a deep affection for Lawson. "He always said he loved her because she always took on everybody else's problems," Magaña said. "He said she was like the grandmother that he never had."
Lawson brought in counselors from Catholic Charities to help the teens deal with the loss of their friend. They also made a video tribute to Hadari. Lawson can't watch it without crying. "He was on the right path," she said.
Lawson said she's trying to work with groups that might help the teens of Lion Creek get jobs. "That's the big need," she said.
In the meantime, as long as her health doesn't deteriorate, she'll keep volunteering.
"Helping the kids and being with them helps me," she said. "Just knowing that I can see a smile on their faces and know they're heading in the right direction, that's my therapy."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.
Claim to fame: Started foundation to educate people about HIV; mentors teens at her housing complex, where they hold an annual health fair.
Quote: "Helping the kids and being with them helps me. Just knowing that I can see a smile on their faces and know they're heading in the right direction, that's my therapy."
Read about a new Hometown Hero every other week and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes.
Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.