By Sally Jones Heinz, Guest Columnist
Back when the staff of MIFA’s Emergency Services department came to the office — before the pandemic sent us all home to work — you might have wondered why nearly every computer in that department had a Q-tip taped somewhere on it.
It was a gift — a reminder, really — from the director of Emergency Services, Phyllis Phillips. It meant: Quit Taking It Personally.
The Q-tip was a way that Phyllis, who had worked at Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association for 33 years when she died in February at the age of 59, reminded her staff that they couldn’t help everybody who needed them, as difficult as that realization was. Of course, Phyllis herself had trouble following her own advice, and spent a career taking her clients’ concerns to heart.
Emergency Services is the part of MIFA where the most desperate need is most present every day. In pre-pandemic days, lines would form outside before our office opened. There were often mothers, fathers, whole families waiting outside Phyllis’ department for help with utilities, housing or transportation. Or all of those.
Over the last year, the hard work of Emergency Services got even harder, as Phyllis and her staff worked remotely and completely online. Requests for help nearly tripled, to 33,363 from March 2020 through March 2021. The number of clients who received services was up more than that: Through March of this year, MIFA fulfilled 5,233 utility requests, compared to 1,899 a year ago; 2,545 requests for rent help, compared to 771 a year ago; and 201 mortgage requests, compared to 33 a year ago. Phyllis’ department administered the Council Emergency Relief Program (CERP) money, along with traditional Emergency Services funds.
For the people who worked with her at MIFA, Phyllis was a great boss and co-worker, but her real superpower was her network of connections across the city, which she would tap fearlessly to get as many clients as possible the help they needed. From churches — she was a committed member at Christ Missionary Baptist Church — to other community service providers to various funders and supporters, Phyllis could nearly always get someone on the phone who could help. She was intensely practical, and would dig in on a problem until she found the answer.
Phyllis was a lifelong Memphian, who went back to get her college degree as an adult, as she was raising her family. She understood her community because she was part of that community.
It was clear to me the first time I met Phyllis that she was special. She did her job without a lot of fanfare, and she was so capable. There was such a comfort in her competence, for clients, certainly, but for the MIFA staff, too.
I think that came from a place of deep faith. Phyllis was open to every kind of person, and didn’t see herself as better (or worse) than anyone, whether it was a client, a volunteer or a staff member.
Thank you, Phyllis, for your incredible service to MIFA and Memphis. We will miss you every day.