The Anne Arundel Community Action Agency studied a long list of nominees as it prepared to induct the first members into its Hall of Fame. In its nearly 50-year history battling poverty, many staff members and volunteers have kept the agency going, and a few made sure it survived.

The final decision fell to the History Committee, which nominated five for the initial honor.

"Oh, we have great stories and many great nominees who made significant contributions," said Kinaya Sokoya, chief executive officer of the Annapolis-based agency. "We will be pulling from the same list next year."

The agency is calling its gala Thursday evening its first annual homecoming, hoping it will be a family reunion of sorts for the former employees and dedicated volunteers who have shaped and carried out its many programs.

"So many of us, employees and volunteers, benefited from our years at the agency," said Yevola Peters, former chief executive officer and honoree. "It really allowed me to grow in so many ways. It seems like nearly every day I meet someone who is or was involved with the agency. This really will be a homecoming for all of us."

About 300 are expected to attend the event at La Fontaine Bleue in Glen Burnie.

"I will be there, even if I have to go in a wheelchair," said Everett Wilson, 77, who worked at the agency in its early days and is one of the gala honorees.

"I wanted the chance to start an agency to help poor people," he said. "There was nothing like that around the county in those days, and there was a great need. Money was really tight then, and I wasn't sure the agency would survive."

Wilson went on to become an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Since 1965, the agency, with headquarters on West Street, has helped the county's needy improve their lives. Peters was teaching in the late 1960s and volunteering with Sylvia McMillan, the agency's first board president, who is being inducted posthumously. When Peters secured a grant for a youth development program, her mentor convinced her to join the agency and run that program.

"I thought it would just be for a few years, but I never went back to teaching," said Peters, 76, who works as a special assistant to County Executive John R. Leopold. "The agency was a moving force that helped me develop as a person. I got back as much as I gave, and it was a real opportunity to help people change their lives."

Also to be inducted is Sylvia Jennings, a former president of the agency's board of directors.

The agency offers energy assistance, housing services, homelessness-prevention programs, youth counseling and summer projects for children.

"The agency has been involved in many strategies to overcome the conditions that lead to poverty," Peters said.

It also manages six Head Start locations to ensure young children thrive, learn and play in a healthy preschool environment. Working with those preschoolers is where Daniel Higman has shined, Peters said.

"He has been a faithful supporter," she said.

Peters was Higman's first contact with the agency, where he has volunteered since 1969. At first, he would just arrive with lollipops and his toolkit. He went on to organize nature studies and woodworking shops for children. He repaired their toys and bikes, tutored, and volunteered with Head Start for decades, all while working full time at the Smithsonian Institution.

"I have a talent for fixing and building," said Higman, also an inductee. "There are plenty of opportunities for those skills in the poorer neighborhoods."

He has assisted the homeless and provided transportation to those families without a vehicle.

"If you want to help your neighbor, you must really do it," he said. "If you are willing, but do not act, you accomplish nothing."

The 74-year-old bachelor considers all those he has helped his family, he said. Even now, in his retirement, he remains available, he said.

"If they need me for anything, I will be there," he said.

Peters has also maintained her ties and is helping to write a history of the agency. There were times when financial problems nearly overwhelmed the organization, she said. Those times proved to be "good educational experiences that taught me financing, accounting and negotiating," she said.

"It is a blessing to be able to stay involved," she said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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