COLUMBIA — One day, when Barbara Willis visited her friend Almeta Crayton, there was a knock on the door. It was two little girls.
"Miss Almeta, mom hasn't been home," Willis remembered the girls saying. "We're hungry."
Crayton didn't have much food in the kitchen for her and her son, Tyrone, but she let the girls in, sat them at the table and made them a bowl of cereal, Willis said.
With Crayton, who ran the annual Everyone Eats! food drive, "it was everyone eats year-round," Willis said.
Crayton, who spearheaded several programs to benefit people in need, died Monday at age 53 after being hospitalized on Oct. 8 with heart problems. The first black councilwoman in Columbia's history, she served three terms from 1999 to 2008.
The cause of death was not released Monday night.
Friends remembered Crayton as a generous woman. Motivated by her spirituality, she believed in doing the best thing for everyone, Willis said.
"She just had that sense that the whole community was in her hands and that if change was needed, she needed to help make change," Willis said.
One year, Willis remembered, Crayton wrangled together some fried chicken for a picnic, inviting First Ward residents and members of the police and fire departments.
Crayton invited the police in an effort to improve their relations with the community, Willis said. She wanted the people of the First Ward to know the authority figures weren't out to hurt them.
"She wanted them to know, especially the young kids, you work with them and they'll work with you," Willis said.
Crayton's community activism often helped single mothers, said Lorenzo Lawson, a pastor at Chosen Generation Ministries. Being one herself, Crayton could sympathize with their struggles.
A friend for 13 years, Lawson called Crayton whenever he needed advice. She gave the best advice, he said.
"She has been a mentor to me," he said. "She helped me to get where I am at and gave me a lot of knowledge and wisdom."
When Crayton submitted her application to run for the First Ward seat on the City Council in 1999, city officials thought she was there to pay an electric bill, said Curtis "Boogieman" Soul, who was friends with her for 17 years. They told her to pay the bill downstairs.
Crayton told Soul that she said, "I'm not here to pay an electric bill. I’m here to run for City Council."
While on the council, Crayton had a knack for getting people involved in their neighborhood.
"She definitely made her presence felt," her friend Scott Cristal said. "She spoke up for those who did not necessarily feel that they had a voice and made sure that their rights were protected."
After seeing a need to provide food for the less fortunate, Crayton started Everyone Eats!, Cristal said.
The event, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2012, began with an act of kindness, Soul said. About two decades ago, Crayton had a few leftover hotdogs in her refrigerator after Thanksgiving dinner. When a group of neighborhood kids walked toward her house, she called them over and asked them what they wanted on their hot dogs.
After feeding them, she cooked leftover hamburger meat to give to more kids. Everyone Eats! was born.
While preparing to host the event for its 16th year in the weeks before she was hospitalized, Crayton kept working until she couldn't anymore, said Soul, who worked as a disc jockey at the event.
"Almeta passed the way she wanted to pass," Soul said. "Working for people."
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