Editor’s Note: Meet our second Distinguished Dozen honoree today, and keep reading in the days ahead to learn about the heroes among us.
Carmelita Wood grew up thinking it would never be possible to own her own home. Today, she’s president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association in Charlottesville.
Wood, a lifelong Charlottesville resident, spent her childhood in the city’s thriving Black neighborhood, Vinegar Hill, until it was razed in 1964 as part of the city’s so-called urban renewal efforts. She looked up to her grandfather, who owned two houses in the neighborhood before it was destroyed.
“My mom always asked me, what was the one thing I wanted? I wanted to own my own home,” Wood, who remembers segregated lunch counters in the city, said. “I didn’t see how it was possible.”
Today, Wood owns her own home and serves on multiple community boards and commissions, such as the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition, in addition to her position in the neighborhood association and her job as a receptionist at ACAC Physical Therapy. Wood said she spends most of her free time serving on these boards, and she can’t imagine doing anything else. Why?
“I love talking to people,” Wood said. “I’m working with some great people in the community and that’s why I am here."
“She’s very humble. She works really hard and she cares a lot about people and she just does it because that’s who she is,” said Willow Gale, a member of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association.
As a single mother raising two children in Westhaven public housing, Wood said she was always trying to figure out a better housing situation for her children, closer to certain schools and community amenities. But she didn’t see a way she could afford anything other than public housing until she sought help from Rosa Hudson of the Piedmont Housing Alliance, who who helped her figure out her options to afford a house of her own.
“I’ve been in that home for 24 years,” Wood said. After moving into Fifeville, Wood became deeply involved in the neighborhood association. She eventually ran for president when Hudson left her post, and won.
Wood is passionate about giving back to the community that has given her more than she imagined she could have. But to her, her community work is just something she does, not anything profound or special. She just wants everyone to have options, she said.
“People should be able to have the choice to move to a different area, where they think or where they know that their children are happy and prospering and can get a better education,” Wood said.
And Wood is always quick to organize to support members of the community who are in great need or crisis.
“Last year in the fall, there were two house fires in the neighborhood. One was an older woman living alone and the other was a young family. Carmelita got us organized and we gathered clothes, toys and gift cards for them both for Christmas,” Gale said.
Wood loves her neighborhood, and says it’s a wonderful place to live. At the same time, though, Wood is constantly looking at ways to improve the community for residents. So she got to work with the city’s Planning Commission on the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan, which included improved walkable trails and plans that would allow small businesses to the area that residents without cars could walk to.
Gale said Wood has always been innovative in partnering with experts and city officials to solve problems and help residents.
“She knows folks, she doesn’t ever hesitate to reach out and ask. Sometimes it’s simple things, like we had questions about some of our assessments on our homes this last year, and the next meeting, all of a sudden there’s the city tax assessor at the meeting,” Gale said.
Wood said it’s important for community members, especially those who are low-income, elderly or people of color, to understand there are resources and options for support for them. That’s why she’s passionate about bringing in experts to help residents.
“There’s so much that needs to be done, and that starts with education. Most people don’t know where to go or how to go about it. I try to get out and start talking to people and get acquainted with the people who have already done the paperwork and done the legwork who can help,” Wood said.
Gale said she wants other community leaders to see Wood as a role model for how they can serve their communities.
“She’s always there. She’s always accessible. People know they can reach out to her with a question, she’ll find somebody to help people. She’s very outgoing, she’s very generous, people never seem to hesitate to reach out to her,” Gale said. “And she’s always there to listen and to find some solution. So I think she’s pretty remarkable and a good role model for the way we could all be in our neighborhoods and in our city.”
Occupation: Part time receptionist at ACAC Physical Therapy, former UVA Health employee
Personal: Two grown children and three grandchildren
Pastimes: Crocheting, serving on community boards and commissions, volunteering with Abundant Life Ministries