For months, friends of Carmelita Witherspoon have been looking for a way to thank her for the years she has spent helping people escape the bondage of alcohol and drug abuse. But Witherspoon, 62, just can't understand what the fuss is all about.
The lastest plans call for a Mother's Day fundraiser next year at Lincoln Theatre, which is near Ben's Chili Bowl, the popular U Street NW restaurant where Witherspoon was working in 1960 when, at 20, she met a customer who turned her on to heroin.
Her triumph over addiction, which lasted 15 long, hard years, and her subsequent devotion to others in trouble, has led many in the Washington area to call her the "Mother of Recovery."
For some, however, a nice name is not enough.
"I met Carmelita 12 years ago, and she was very instrumental in helping me get clean," said Arthur Ashby, a hairstylist in Washington. "To see her now in a nursing home, waiting to be served by nurses on Thanksgiving Day, reminds me of how we tend to give our loved ones flowers after they are gone instead of while they can appreciate them."
In her room at the Washington Center for Aging Services, Witherspoon spends much of the day making collages for friends. Most of them feature photographs of people celebrating years of sobriety.
"I used to think men, money and jobs were the only important things in life," Witherspoon said. "Today, I have no money. I made some bad decisions about my retirement funds. But I'm okay with that now. I've had bypass surgery, and I'm a diabetic. My body is starting to give out. But I'm safe here. And l have a purpose in life. I believe it is to help people."
Helping her is what Ashby and Calvin Woodland Jr., an aide to D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), and others have in mind.
"This is not a bleeding heart thing, and we're not asking people to go kiss her feet," Ashby said. "It's just that she has helped a lot of us move on to better lives. So all I'm saying is, why not thank her by giving a little something back?"
Witherspoon, the second of seven children, grew up in rural Croom. She said she always felt odd as a child because, "I liked to play in dirt and tear up my clothes." She recalled being punished often for her tomboyish ways: "For a long time, I felt my mother hated me."
Witherspoon graduated from high school in Prince George's County and spent a year at Morgan State in Baltimore before going to work at Ben's Chili Bowl.
"One day this guy walks in and says, 'Hi, baby,' and I guess that was all I needed," she recalled. "By the time I found out he was a heroin addict, I felt I was in love. I remember one night telling him that I was feeling down and he offered me a hit. Seven days later, I was hooked."
Witherspoon's life became a descent into shame and isolation until one "horrible night when the drugs didn't work and I knew I had to do something."
She entered a 24-month treatment program called Last Renaissance. She spent the first eight hours there seated before a sign that read, "Don't blow this chance." She didn't. After completing the program, she began working and volunteering at addiction treatment centers. A few years later, she was named chief drug and alcohol counselor at the veterans hospital in the District.
In 1976, Witherspoon helped start the first Narcotics Anonymous group in Washington and began inviting women to her home for "recovery retreats."
She is known for speaking from the heart.
"There came a day when I understood how much my mother really cared about me, and I was able to make amends," Witherspoon said. "Out of seven kids, I was the one with our parents when they died. That's when I knew I had been forgiven and that I could forgive myself."
Witherspoon became teary-eyed when told that plans for a tribute to her were moving forward. "I keep telling Arthur to stop it," she said. "People don't have to remember me."
Ashby said: "It's hard for her to accept credit for benevolent deeds because she lives by the rule of unconditional love. But if I have to, I'll twist her arm and make her let us give thanks."