The small children in Southwest who know her good deeds but not her name call Phyllis Martin "the lady with one leg." They do it with affection, and when she hears it, she throws back her head and lets out a thunderous, rolling laugh.
"They're right. If I have two (legs,) it's news to me," she says.
Martin could easily have grown up a handicapped child wallowing in pity. But her parents William and Bertha Brown allowed no pity in their house. Martin had to fend for herself, along with her 12 sisters and brothers.
Today, at 54, she is a beloved community worker and deputy director of Southwest Community House, a social service agency offering special programs for the elderly, consumer counseling, recreation and various types of advocacy assistance to the poor in its community.
In addition to attending to her official duties, Martin can often be seen walking in her crutches from busines to business, soliciting donations to buy food or clothing for the needy. And she regularly visits her city councilman, John Wilson, to keep him up-to-date on the concerns of her neighbors.
"I know 'em all," she says of Washington's elected officials. "And I'll go down there in a minute."
Martin was 4 1/2 when her right leg was severed by a train. She was playing with two of her sisters and a friend on the railroad tracks at New Jersey Avenue and I Street SE.
The four had hopped aborad a railway car to play in a vat of cement. When the train started moving, they jumped off. Martin grabbed a clump of grass to pull herself up the hill and away from the tracks. Her hands slipped, and she quite clearly remembers tumbling down the hill before the train caught her right leg.
Surely there was horror and pain, but what Martin remembers most about the ordeal is a talk she had with her mother four years later.
"She called me in one day," Martin recalls, "and said, 'Phyllis, do you remember having two legs"' I said, 'No.' She said, 'Then you can't miss anything you never had.'"
That made sense to Martin and she continued to play on the railroad tracks, never again stopping to worrry about having only one leg.
She set out, instead, to fight the crippling effects of poverty. Last March she received the Distinguished Community Service Award from the National Urban Coalition. She was one of four people chosen from across the country for the award recognizing "outstanding achievement . . . in improving the quality of life for people in urban communities."
Martin's community, of course, is Southwest. She has lived there since 1941, when her parents' home in Southeast was torn down during urban renewal and the family moved into the then-new James Creek housing project.
She married Wilfred Martn in 1948, and in 1958 the couple moved into the Greenleaf Annex where they still live.
"When we met, she was really shy," her husband says. "Somebody -- mostly her mother -- instilled in her to get out and forget her handicap. That's what helped her."
Before institutional antipoverty programs existed in Southwest, Martin and several of her friends were active there. The group eventually became known as the Dynamic Nine, offering emergency services after other programs had closed for the day.
In 1966, when Southwest House expanded its services, the members of the Dynamic Nine were hired.Martin herself was hired as a community organizer and in 1974 was named deputy director.
The white, two-story frame house that holds the offices of Southeast House is at 156 Q St. SW. One side of the building faces the red brick wall that surrounds Fort McNair across the street and separates one life style from another.
Taped to the wall next to Martin's desk in her cluttered office are signs that tell of her spirit: an old yellow flyer that says, "Dr. King, we remember you"; another saying, "Support the struggle", and a third with a line she had adopted as her motto, "Just ask me."
And ask her they do. People ask for clothers, food and emergency funds. Often, when Martin is making her rounds, one of the stores where she stops is Harry's Liquor, Wine and Cheese store at Waterside Mall. Says owner Stan Walker, "I just can't say no to her. I have never seen anybody work as hard as this woman.
"There are very few people in this neighborhood who damand respect. She demands it. . .
"The same youngsters she brings in at 8 or 9 years old, I don't recognize when they are 18 or 19. They grow up so fast. But they come in here then and they say, 'Hi, Mr. Walker,' or 'Hi, Stan, how are you doing.' I feel really proud to see them on the right road. That's what's beautiful. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't know these kids. I just love her."
And should children stray down the wrong path anyway, Martin doesn't forget them.
"She is well-respected at Lorton," said Ricardo Smith, a 30-year-old Southwest native who served six years there on a manslaughter conviction. While Smith was imprisoned, his parents died.
"Every week I had a letter or a call from her," he said. "My earliest memories of her are when I was 9 or 10 . . . We could be up at the drugstore getting ready to make a five-finger discount move, and she'd 'Y'all go home now.' We would move."
"She's invaluable because . . . you can get a proper persepective of the community problems from her," says Rae Williams, Martin's supervisor and the director of Southwest House.
Martin fought "at least several years" for the Southwest Community Child Development Center, which is housed in St. Matthew's Lutheran Church at 1200 Delaware Ave. SW, says Minetta Wheeler, a teacher's assistant at the school. "She's still there if we need her."