Bristol Redevelopment & Housing Authority

Bristol Redevelopment & Housing Authority


When Older Americans Month was established in 1963, only seventeen million living Americans had reached their 65th birthday. About a third of older Americans lived in poverty and there were few programs to meet their needs. Interest in older Americans and their concerns was growing. A meeting in April 1963 between President John F. Kennedy and members of the National Council of Senior Citizens led to designating May as “Senior Citizens Month,” the prelude to “Older Americans Month.” Check out the story of one of our Senior tenants.

In previous years, our article for Older Americans Month has been a summary of its history. This year we decided to find an older American in our community and share their story. Alma Wheeler has been a tenant with Bristol Redevelopment and Housing Authority for 16 years. She is a familiar face to our other tenants, the children from our properties and many community officials and leaders. She is 71 years young and what stories she had to share!

      Ms. Alma grew up during a period when segregation existed in schools but lucky for her and her childhood friends, she lived on a street with children of all races. They played and got into childhood mischief together. She was in the first class to graduate from Vance Middle School in Bristol. It was during her eighth-grade year, that segregation ended. Alma shared that the children had already bonded outside of school, and it was the adults and their unacceptance that created issues. Following that, she was in the first graduating class of Tennessee High to attend four years as an integrated group.

     After high school, Ms. Alma got married and had two beautiful daughters. She was not only a wife and mother, but she also held several jobs outside the home. She spent time employed at the phone company, Bank of Virginia, and Cigna Insurance, where she was employed for over 20 years. During this time, shelters for battered women were not readily available and she struggled with options when her husband of seventeen years became abusive. She eventually found the strength to force him to leave and took on raising her girls alone. After losing their home, she found a small apartment and kept busy with work, church, and activities for the girls. Her girls have grown up to be successful women, and
she is the grandmother to twelve grandchildren and thirteen plus great grandchildren.

     With her children grown and moved out, she began to create a life of her own. After experiencing some health issues, Ms. Alma searched for a ground level apartment and in passing, found Sapling Grove. She remembers the BRHA Staff blindfolding her to reveal her new home on the day she received her keys and the excitement she felt. The apartment has remained her home. She had always written poetry and dreamed of writing a book about her abusive relationship, in hopes of giving others the strength to make changes for themselves. She has not published a book, but her poetry has made it to the press. Ms. Alma has had two poems published. One was the closing for the 32nd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast.  She was also the teacher for a youth group called “Awesome Light” at her church. She had a part in two Paramount Theater plays: The Crossing and Jesus Christ Superstar. She did storytelling and created a character named “Mame Nana” working alongside Willimina Banks, who is recognized for creating community through art and history.

     Nowadays she spends her free time, challenging herself by dancing, painting with watercolors, attending Fit Combo classes (a combination of Zumba and high impact exercise) which she designs her own workout attire for, writing poetry, and enjoys helping in our community whenever possible. I was amazed after hearing all her trials how often Ms. Alma still used the word “blessed”. There is a lot to be learned from the elderly portion of our community and we should allow them to contribute as often as possible because they have an abundance of things to offer. Ms. Alma Wheeler is a true treasure!