COLUMBIA — Verna Laboy has fondly nicknamed her house the “Worley Street Manor.”
It stands out with pink and purple geraniums crowding steps to a front porch adorned with rocking chairs, wind chimes, a blue chair swing and children's jump ropes hanging from a post.
On the front door, a piece of paper is taped just above the door handle. The type is simple, all capital letters: RESPECT.
Laboy, 52, devotes her life to making a positive impact on her community. She works with a committee to create healthy neighborhoods and is a minister at her church, Urban Empowerment. She is active with the Youth Empowerment Zone and Living Large, a program that provides various classes and Bible studies to the community. Laboy is a mother of five, a grandmother of 12 and a great-grandmother of two.
On top of her involvement in community organizations and family, Laboy finds time to invest in personal relationships with her neighbors. She said that to her friends she is “MIZ Verna” — for Motivated, Inspired and Zealous.
Raised in Peoria, Ill., Laboy attended Bradley University before moving to Hannibal in 1976. After a divorce, she and her children moved to Columbia in 1989 where she worked as a Division of Family Services caseworker.
Laboy married her second husband, Gil, in 1994 and moved into the house on Worley Street. She loved the place, but it wasn’t long before she spotted drug dealers working right outside her door.
“I would come home from work, and I would see the same guys on the corner, or sometimes they would put chairs out at the end of the street right here on Worley and just sit there, waiting for drive-ups to serve them,” she said. “I was like, this just can’t be happening. I can’t believe this is happening and no one is doing anything.”
Concerned by how the crime would affect her family and neighbors, Laboy researched and discovered the Smithton Valley Neighborhood Association had been established but was inactive. To revitalize it, she went door-to-door to talk with her neighbors and urge them to take part. She organized meetings, sometimes in her own front yard, and led marches carrying signs reclaiming the neighborhood.
“I just wanted to get people involved,” she said. “I knew that neighborhood and community would be very important for change.”
Because the association had been legally established, Laboy only had to help expand its borders. For years, she continued to help build the association, and it eventually became one of the largest in the city.
“I figured once we got people involved, they could just break off and do their own couple of blocks or whatever they wanted to do,” she said. “When people know that those who live in the community neighborhood care, they’ll think twice about some of the illegal activities they participate in right in your face.”
The Smithton Valley Neighborhood Association is now defunct, and Laboy is working with a committee to revitalize neighborhood associations throughout Columbia. She hopes soon to help build a Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association.
In 2005, Laboy noticed a troubling number of single mothers in the area. She decided to open her doors to any women willing to come. Over a home-cooked meal and a Bible study, the women bonded. The gathering became a tradition, and Ladies Night Out Ministries was formed.
“We would pack into this small living room, and we would just speak into one another’s lives,” she said. “We would celebrate victories, we would cry together, we would encourage them to set boundaries in relationships, we would encourage them with their children.”
Tabitha Linzie first met Laboy in 2005 after Laboy knocked on her door with an invitation to Ladies Night Out. Linzie said that at first she was reluctant to go and hesitant to speak up. But when she was finally able to open up to Laboy, Linzie said, she received the “ultimate reward.”
“I felt like weight and weight and weight had been lifted off of me by getting this off my chest,” Linzie said. “Just knowing that this beautiful, established woman had experienced the same thing and that she told me, 'This too will pass' — it was such a relief.”
Over the next four years, Linzie estimated that about 200 women were a part of Ladies Night Out at one time or another. The group outgrew Laboy’s home and is now a part of an expanded program at Calvary Baptist Church that offers support groups and classes to the Columbia community.
“She took the disappointments or mistakes that she has made in her life, and she uses them as this testimonial of still being able to overcome" adversity, Linzie said.
Scrawled reminders of meetings and appointments crowd each day in Laboy’s planner. She said it is often hard to find a spare minute. Laboy said that as she navigates her incredibly busy schedule, she is motivated by family and faith.
“I do get tired, but when it’s your calling and your gifting and you’re doing exactly what it is you were created to do or be or purposed to do, you find the energy,” she said. “It comes.”
Jane Williams, another woman active in Columbia programs, has had the opportunity to watch Laboy work in the community for 10 years. She said Laboy is an encouragement and an example to others to persevere when things are tough.
“She’s radiant, full of joy,” Williams said. “She speaks the truth in love, she’s not afraid to tell you what you may not want to hear, but in a way that you can receive it and know that it is right.”
Some of Williams' favorite memories of Laboy are seeing her in an apron holding a homemade casserole and listening to her “fabulous singing.” She described Laboy as a visionary full of energy.
“I figure one of these days we’ll have the Verna Laboy TV show,” Williams said.
Laboy said she hopes her community will see even more growth. She envisions more neighborhood associations, free and accessible health ministries in churches and “webs of support” among neighbors. Despite the work she has done, Laboy is always looking to the future.
“I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up," she said, "because I am continually growing and changing, evolving.”