Gertrude Hoffman-Peele has called Jacksonville, Florida, her home since 1929. Jacksonville has also been the main beneficiary of her lifetime of commitment to children and community activism. Mrs. Peele remains tireless in working to make this world a better place, especially for children. Known locally as “the voice of the children,” much of Mrs. Peele’s energy has focused on identifying the problems and finding solutions to the myriad of challenges facing children at risk, especially children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned.
In 1980, she founded the Child Watch Partnership of Jacksonville, Florida, Inc. which has grown into a network of hundreds of volunteers serving in various roles, all committed to child advocacy issues. Mrs. Peele has stated that after retiring in 1968, she planned on spending the rest of her days taking care of her family, instead she has spent almost 30 years working to make her community a better place to live and raise families. She once said, “I quickly saw that I could not stand on one side of the street and watch children and families suffer on the other side. I had the energy, the time and I understood the problems of poor families and children. Somebody had to become the voice of children in need.”
Gertrude Peele’s work on solutions to community problems has manifested in many forms. In 1989, she was determined to not let fear allow drug deals and criminals take over the LaValla District in her community. Her second story volunteer office window overlooked a notorious “crack house” and an abandoned vacant lot. The building was occupied and being used by drug dealers and prostitutes, while the abandoned lot with overgrown bushes was used to hide their children. Peele said, “to me, it was personal because the entire LaValla District had become an environmental hazard, and if a change was going to be come, then I would be a part of the change by creating the ‘idea of change’ and working to make it happen.”
Mrs. Peele purchased the building and the empty lot, named the building The Center of Achievement, leased it to the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. Jacksonville, Florida Community Based Section and with a grant from the Department of HUD, the building was renovated and reopened as a community resource center. It provides office space for the NCNW, Inc., the Child Watch Partnership of Jacksonville, Inc. and Women In Community Service, Inc., an organization that works with youth ages 16-24 who are seeking education or vocational opportunities by offering supportive services. The Child Watch Partnership of Jacksonville spearheads programs that are initiated nationally by The Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, DC. More than 29 community-based programs are operated under the umbrella of these three organizations, including programs to feed the hungry, recruiting youth for the Job Corps, and raising awareness surrounding the need for adequate Foster Care Homes and seeking good homes for children in need of Adoption, and are under the auspices of the State of Florida Children, Youth, and Families.
Thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Peele, the building that was once a haven for aberrant activity is now part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Mrs. Peele’s resolve to improve lives has led to the revitalization of an area once known as “the Harlem of the South” for its historical and cultural offerings, until plagued by urban decay and crime. The transformation of her building on Beaver Street in Jacksonville was the first step in a process that has resulted in a renewed, safer, healthier neighborhood that now boasts restaurants, a cultural theatre, and museum, and the LaVilla School of the Arts.
Mrs. Peele has put action and commitment behind her words by selflessly serving as Volunteer Director of the Center of Achievement for more than 10 years; serving as Coordinator for Stand for Children and Watch Projects for the Children’s Defense Fund; serving on numerous local and national boards of organizations, including the Jacksonville Community Council and the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Children, just to name a few. She has been described as “a true champion for children’s rights.” The lives of many more children that just those living in Jacksonville is better because of Gertrude Hoffman-Peele.
Gertrude Peele is also a 2004 recipient of the Florida Governor’s Point of Light Award, which recognizes Florida residents and organizations that demonstrate exemplary volunteer service to their community.