Detroiter Margaret England is living proof that you don’t have to have 20/20 vision to see the good in yourself or others.
And how, with steadfast perseverance, a big dose of moxie, a little help from your friends and a Hula-Hoop, you can do great things.
The spunky 73-year-old has faced challenges, literally, since birth. But none of it has stopped her from overcoming them all — even if she has to do it a little slower than others — in her own personal effort to help improve the lives of others, especially the children.
England likes to stay busy and involved. And that means keeping her body and mind sharp. Which is why, at least two to three times a week, she can be found at a playfield named after a Detroit legend who was once regarded as the fastest human in the world. But England is never in a rush.
In fact, when she uses the public exercise equipment at Tolan Playfield on Mack and the I-75 service drive in Midtown, she often requires at least two hours to get through her entire routine.
“It’s perfect because I can do a complete workout over there,” said England, of the exercise stations she discovered in 2020 at the city park named after Cass Tech’s own Thomas Edward (Eddie) Tolan, who won gold on the track in the 100 and 200 meters at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. “The equipment covers everything. You can even do rowing and squats. It’s all there and you control it because you’re working with your own body.”
Working with her own body has actually presented challenges for England throughout her life. England tells it this way — as it was told to her by her mother: She was “born with no slits for her eyelids.” And by the time her “eyelids were (surgically) made,” England was 8 or 9 months old. She was left with extremely crossed eyes that were not improved despite several surgeries during her childhood. And her right eye remains considerably weaker than her left eye.
Nonetheless, the condition did not prevent England from achieving academically, as her degrees attest: a bachelor’s degree in nursing; master’s degrees in clinical psychology and psychiatric nursing; and a Ph.D. in nursing science. And with her knowledge, England later taught and published her research as a college professor, which included stints at Wayne State University and the University of Windsor. But as her vision continued to deteriorate through the years, England said it became increasingly difficult to hold on to her teaching positions for reasons out of her control. She uses words like “discrimination” and “forced out” to describe the circumstances she faced.
In 2005, after a 30-year professional career which spanned five states and the province of Ontario, Canada, England, a self-described “people person,” said some of the folks she had to deal with to maintain employment had her feeling “run down.” It was then that she retired from teaching and ultimately turned her attention to improving her health, while embarking on a nearly decade-long quest to help Detroit youths in need. And through it all, she has gained an even greater appreciation for the city that first welcomed her from Cleveland in 1990.
“I came to Detroit cold. I knew nothing about things like jazz or soul food, or even white privilege. But I make it my business to get to know people and now I feel that I fit in, so I could never stop doing stuff,” explained England, who was born in Oakland, California. In England’s world, “stuff” includes walking 15 miles a week and doing exercises, like Hula-Hooping, in addition to her two-hour workouts at Tolan Playfield.
“For me, exercise is the best antidote for depression,” said England, who came upon the Tolan Playfield exercise area after she was cut off from the exercise room and many friends at St. Patrick Senior Center during the pandemic. Today, England tips the scale at about 175 pounds, down from the 245 pounds she weighed when she made the decision to unburden herself from a load of stress back in 2005.
And England’s weight loss has coincided with gains in other areas connected to her perception of Detroit.
Having never driven in a town famously known as the “Motor City,” because of her impaired vision, England has developed what she calls her own special superpower. She has an ability to form deep connections with the people and things she comes into close contact with during her walks across the city, even though she may not be able to see those objects clearly.
For example, England is intensely attracted to old Detroit homes, including homes located in the Brush Park Historic District (consisting of Alfred, Edmond and Watson streets and stretching from Brush to John R), an area once known as “Little Paris” for its large homes resembling mansions.
These homes and other stately Detroit landmarks that England has cast her sights on from ground level during her walks cause the academic researcher within her to resurface, which leads her to her home computer or the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, where she tirelessly researches the history of the jewels she uncovers.
One day, England says she would like to present an exhibit for her community near her condo at Mack and Woodward, to share her findings about old Detroit homes and other history about the city going as far back as the 1600s.
But in the meantime, England has current community work that she must continue, which she hopes will positively impact the future.
Just as her walks have put her in touch with Detroit’s beauty, England says she also sees — in her own way — how poverty devastates so many lives that literally cross her path each day. England shows her concern through her actions. And for the past nine years, she has conducted her own “campaign,” which has provided items like clothes, shoes, blankets, sleeping bags, and in 2020, tablet computers, to Detroit youths in need.
“How can you expect children to learn if they are hungry, or cold; or if their parents are not home or unable to help with schoolwork when they are?” asks England, who points out that stretches of historic Gratiot Avenue make up one of the poorest ZIP codes in the city — 48213. “We’re talking about children in homes without electricity, or running water, or heat in the winter, that can use all the help they can get.”
The passion can be heard in England’s voice when she describes why she wants to help. She knows a thing or two about struggling financially. England said the pursuit of her doctorate at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland included a six-month period when she lived in her car. And when she obtained a teaching position at Wayne State, the first check she made out to the Belcrest Apartments, where she lived at the time, bounced. England also revealed that she endured a rough stretch when she first retired, which brought her back to the Belcrest, where she was able to live with her uncle, Lawrence Halsted.
“He (Halsted) was a guardian angel. I would have ended up homeless if it wasn’t for him,” England said. “After leaving the University of Windsor, I sort of lost my nerve for a while. My vision was bad and I just couldn’t keep it up. It took me several years to adjust to that.”
Her uncle later bought a condo at The Ellington, which England inherited — with a mortgage — from Halsted, whom she cared for when he suffered from dementia in his final years. However, England was faced with another physical challenge shortly after Halstead’s death in 2012. While planning the funeral, a seizure triggered by food poisoning left England with a severe foot injury, which later led to two broken legs. An incredulous tone comes over England’s voice as she relives the mishaps that had her laid up for six months. But she says what happened next was even more amazing.
“The people in the building took care of me. I had friends coming out of the woodwork that I didn’t know I had,” said England, who recalled, appreciatively, having shopping, cooking and cleaning done for her by her neighbors at The Ellington.
The good deeds produced a vision within England’s heart and mind.
“My neighbors really were the inspiration for my campaign to help the children, because they did so much to help me,” she said. Her campaign began with a letter seeking support, which she personally delivered to all of her condo neighbors. England said more than 75% of the letter recipients have contributed during each of the years she has conducted the campaign, with a high of 92% one year. She says the generosity of her neighbors gives her another reason to feel good about where she lives.
“How do the poor view the building? That’s very important,” declares England, who delivers a handwritten thank you letter to each supporter on Christmas Day, which she later follows up with a summary showing how each dollar was spent.
Also important to England’s efforts is having someone who can get the items that are collected and purchased to the kids that need them the most. And with the exception of 59 computer tablets that England obtained for middle school students with assistance from a family member who wishes to remain anonymous, every item she acquires for children goes to Bishop Karl Rodig, Ph.D., who leads the Cathedral Abbey of St. Anthony on Detroit’s east side.
“First of all, Margaret is a wonderful spirit who keeps providing and providing and providing,” said Bishop Rodig, whose church delivered essential items provided by England and other contributors to roughly 65 homes with needy children in the Gratiot Town-Kettering neighborhood during the 2020 holiday season.
While England, with the help of her Ellington condo neighbors, does most of her giving to children at holiday time, she keeps Bishop Rodig’s number in her flip phone contacts. And whenever she receives something that a child or any person in need can use, she calls that number.
It is a call that Bishop Rodig says he is always happy to take: “Margaret is just a very caring person with an amazing awareness of people’s needs.”