First State’s Bernice Edwards: Passion to help others in need has family ties

21 Q & A Bernie Edwards at desk

A firm believer in providing a hand up rather than a hand-out, Bernice Edwards is Executive Director of First State Community Action Agency.

GEORGETOWN – Bernice Edwards and First State Community Action Agency are synonymous.

A native of Georgia, Ms. Edwards has been with First State for 37 years, having climbed the position ladder in the agency’s mission to help low-income communities and their residents become self-sufficient.

She is now in her 10th year as the Executive Director.

First State’s base in Georgetown is the beehive for a variety of programs and services, ranging from young children to senior citizens, addressing a plethora of needs.

This year, First State is celebrating its 50th year of existence.

21 Q & A Bernice training room 4 col

First State Community Action Agency’s Community Training & Resource Center is named in tribute to its current executive director, Bernice Edwards.

A gala fundraising event is planned Nov. 16 at Dover Downs Conference Center. It will feature an extra-special keynote speaker: Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and author of the New York Times bestseller, “Just Mercy,” which has been awarded several honors including a 2015 NAACP Image Award.

Mr. Stevenson, a native Delawarean and Cape Henlopen graduate, earlier this year named in Time Magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Ms. Edwards and husband Willie Sr. have two children, daughter Christa and son Will Jr., five grandkids and three great-grandchildren.

Here is Bernice Edwards, community activist who believes in providing a hand-up rather than a hand-out.

Family provided you the ‘head start’ in your chosen profession?

“I am the product of a historic parent. I was an advocate in the community. Both of my kids attended Head Start. They went on to Delaware State University. That’s what really got me involved, as a Head Start parent. And before I came to Delaware I worked with the neighborhood youth corps in Georgia.”

How did growing up in the South during the 1950s-60s influence you?

“I was born raised in southwest Georgia. I went to school when there was segregation. When I graduated in 1965, that was the time of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act. I was in the midst of all of that.”

“I have always felt if God put me in positions and places I would always try to help those who were less fortunate.”

“When you have seen the struggle, my goal has always been education. I really feel to this day that education can always uplift you to another level. But you have to be dedicated.”

Talk about your progression at First State, from your first experience in community outreach, working with neighborhoods?

“I worked with young people who had dropped out of high school. We had a program to go back and work with those individuals, helping them get a high school diploma. I went from community outreach to housing and community development. From that I went to director of the housing community development program.”

Along the way you fulfilled a parental promise?

“In that time frame there I went back to college. I had set some goals for myself in life. As my kids got older … we sat down as family, and I expressed my desire to get back into school because that is a goal I had promised my parents and myself. I got married early, like 19, a month before my 20th birthday. I was in love – and I guess am I am still with the same man 48 years later. But I had always promised my parents that I would finish school. I attended Del Tech. I got my associates degree. I  did not go back to college until I was 38 years old.”

“Then I became Deputy Director of the agency. I went back and got my bachelor’s degree from Wilmington University. I was able to work a fulltime job, go to school at night, take care of family, be a wife and mother. I would work all day long and have five hour classes. My father and mother were here to see me get my degree!”

So what brought you to Delaware?

“Fish products; my husband came to Delaware to work in a fish factory. For 48 years  I have been in Delaware. We now live in Milton.”

In general, what is your philosophy on life?

“As a people and a community I think we need to start to have that real frank conversation, and that’s not talking at each other, but to each other, about understanding different people with different ethnic backgrounds and different cultures, but also be open enough to appreciate each other. And I don’t think we do enough of that.”

What makes you and First State tick?

“I really love about the work that we do here, and I think what has happened over the years is people really didn’t understand or maybe appreciate the work that we do. We have made a difference in the lives of so many people, which sometimes I think has gone un-noticed. But I often tell my staff here is we are a team and we work together as a team. And in this kind of work you have to be good listeners.”

“When you have that positive male role model in a child’s life, you are going to see that child is less likely to incur or get involved in crime in any way – or negative behavior.”

“I think sometimes people think it’s always a handout but it’s not; it’s a hand up. It’s really working with those individuals and those communities. That has been my goal in life. But it also has been my goal for this agency- to be that go-to agency when people are looking to continue to better themselves in life.”

Sounds like setting people, especially young people, on the right track is paramount?

“I can try to help a young mother who is struggling, and get her back on the right track being a good parent but also gaining some skills so she would be able to support that child to the best of her ability.”

“Or looking at young men … ‘Yes, you might have made a mistake … but you just can’t wallow in that mistake: take responsibility for that mistake but you also have to set some goals and be better fathers. Be the father that you know you are supposed to be in your child’s life.’”

“I often tell them, ‘the mother and you might not like each other but you’ve got those babies. You have to work with each other for the good of that child.’”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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