Tillie O’Neal-Kyles appears nothing if not enthusiastic. Even the message on her cellphone feels full of life. The 70-year-old who introduces herself as
“Miss Tillie” informs her callers she’s busy having a “magnafabulous” day.”
“‘Enthusiasm’ means God’s within,” she said. “I think I am enthusiastic because God’s within. … I’m motivated from the inside out.”
Her enthusiastic efforts to make the world a bit better led to her selection as the city of Sandy Springs’ 2016 Humanitarian of the Year. In conferring the award, city officials said O’Neal-Kyles “has dedicated her life to lifting up the marginalized, teaching them about their intrinsic human worth and the power of forgiveness.”
“She has made it her mission to equip economically vulnerable women with the tools to pull themselves out of despondency and into self-sufficiency and self-worth,” city officials said in the program for the Jan. 18 Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, were O’Neal-Kyles received the award.
Miss Tillie herself later described the moment as almost overwhelming. When her name was announced, she suddenly wasn’t sure what to say. “I’m never speechless,” she said. “But I was speechless because I was standing there wondering what did I do to deserve this? When somebody wants to put you in the same category as Martin Luther King Jr., there must be a mistake.”
O’Neal-Kyles started the work that led to her selection for the honor a dozen years ago, after she retired from a career in corporate life. She had been a trainer and teacher for AT&T, she said, and after retirement was thinking about what to do with the rest of her life.
“At some point as you get older, you realize you’re going to die one day,” she said. “I wanted to leave a legacy.”
She founded Every Woman Works Inc., a not-for-profit agency dedicated to helping women with troubled lives move from dependency to self-sufficiency. The program does that in part, she said, by teaching the women the skills they’ll need to hold a job—how to work with computers or dress for success—but primarily by teaching them to stand on their own feet emotionally.
“It’s all about them understanding that they are not victims, that they are products of choices they’ve made,” she said.
Women are referred to the program, now located in an office building in Sandy Springs, by various government agencies or charities, O’Neal-Kyles said. About 1,600 women, she said, have been served by the program, which now lasts about six weeks, with classes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
“The thing that breaks my heart,” O’Neal-Kyles said, “is that some of them are so depressed. Some are them are in poverty. …. Once they come in and we teach them to believe in themselves— people love to feel empowered— we’ve got them! … They’ve got to look at themselves and the world differently.”
O’Neal-Kyles said she knows how to work with the women because she faced many of the same emotion problems during her career. She was an African-American single parent, she said. Her own struggles “taught me how to survive, how to stop being a victim.”
“I had to learn these lessons, and I think I learned them in quite a way,” she said. “God did not want to put my lessons to waste.”
Still, the job before her seems difficult. There are so many people who need help. “There’s so much to do and so much more to do. I feel like I haven’t made a dent. It seems the numbers are getting larger.”
But she’s not backing away. “When you help other people, there is something that helps you,” she said. “I just want to go around thanking them.”