Not too long after Elizabeth Thurman Shell came to the Lucille Devore Tucker Center at the age of 6, she had her first diversity lesson.
“I learned the importance of not judging another based on who they were or what they did or did not have,” she says. “That was invaluable. Because, in the end we were all the same and enjoyed many of the same things.”
That was in 1966, when the organization was known as Girls Club of Memphis. She was active in Girls Inc. programming at LDT for 11 years before she graduated high school in 1977 and went to Atlanta to study sociology at Morris Brown College and got her Master of Divinity from Turner Seminary, also in Atlanta. She had a long career as a state and federal prison chaplain, retiring in 2010.
Today Elizabeth has come full circle in a way, serving as Associate Pastor at St. James AME Church, just a few blocks away from LDT. And while both she and the world have changed over the years, the lessons she learned as a Girls Inc. girl are as relevant as ever.
“As an ordained minister, compassion and love for all of God’s people is a part of who I am, personally and professionally,” Elizabeth says. “Treating people how I want to be treated and knowing that it is a person’s character that matters is how I approach interactions with others.”
One of her favorite memories was getting to read the essay that won her a national scholarship at the Girls Inc. National Conference in Washington, DC in 1977. Her sister had won the same scholarship in 1971. She and the other winners got to meet President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalyn Carter afterward.
“It gave me greater confidence in myself and my ability to do anything I wanted to do and be whoever I wanted to be,” she said.
And who she became is someone for whom caring for others is second nature.
“I am that person who walks down the street, sees a person who seems to need help, and stops to ensure they are okay and provides or gets them the help they need,” she said.
At St. James, spends a lot of time interacting with young people. High-risk youth and those struggling to find their place in society are her main focus as she encourages them to be strong, smart and bold. In particular she is passionate about encouraging girls to go to college and step out on their own.
Whether it was a sewing or art class or the time she spent in the “Circle Room” at LDT where she and her friends would gather and talk about everything from relationships to current issues impacting them, her time at Girls Inc. of Memphis was a key building block of the person she became and is today.
“In addition to what my parents taught me in the home, Girls Club/Girls Inc. helped me to put those things into practice,” she said. “I am thankful there was a place I could go to participate in constructive activities and grow into a young lady. We became family and to this present day, many of us remain so.”
Elizabeth Thurman Shell
Girls Inc. Alumna
Participant from 1966-1977