Phyllis McCallum’s phone rang at lunch. It is not like her to pick up a call when with another, but this one? Of course she would.
It was one of her ProKids. She volunteers with the agency in the mentorship and relationship program that pairs children in need of stable adults who can offer advice, be there for growing pains and, in short, connect.
The call was from an adult. Because McCallum, who met this mentee who refers to her as “Godmom” when the girl was about 13, will never let her down.
It was a quick call, then back to lunch with Gina Goings, vice president of institutional advancement at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. McCallum is an ambassador there. She does so much that Goings has to schedule lunch with her to get time to talk.
McCallum, a Downtown resident, is among The Enquirer’s 2019 Women of the Year. She is thrilled with this recognition. It is one of many accomplishments she has attained.
“Dedicated,” is the word that jumped into Goings’ mind when asked to describe McCallum.
McCallum is an original Freedom Center ambassador who for 10 years has attended and tended to events, acted as a guide for those new to the museum and advocated for the museum. She is also a board member – and at the time she started, the first African-American board member – of the Taft Museum of Art. And those are just a few of her endeavors.
McCallum’s daughter, Steffani Jemison, said her mother is a natural leader who makes people comfortable.
“My mother has the really extraordinary ability to make each friend and mentee feel as if they are the most important person in the world,” Jemison said. “She is an excellent listener who can find new ideas, advice and bright sides in every situation.
“I think she’s so good at supporting other people because she’s so powerfully confident and secure in herself. Secure enough that she often seems utterly fearless.”
Fearless enough that McCallum recently “ziplined in the Berkshires,” “ran a marathon” and “rented a bike and rode 40 miles through all five boroughs of New York City,” her daughter said. She even “traveled alone to the Galapagos Islands simply because it was on her bucket list.”
Goings called McCallum a voice for diversity in the community, recalling a time when McCallum urged her, too, to join the board of the Taft Museum.
McCallum was instrumental in bringing Girls Inc. to the YWCA. The organization’s mission is to empower and inspire girls. She also committed herself to The Children’s Home of Cincinnati as a board member. She adopted her own son from the home.
“I try hard not to do anything halfway,” she said.
McCallum is as humble as she is dedicated, say those who know her well.
“She is not one to ever be in the spotlight,” Goings said.
“I genuinely love what I do,” McCallum said. “I choose the organizations I work with very carefully and feel a real connection with the mission and purpose of each.
“I find it personally satisfying knowing that I’m part of a team helping to make our community a better place.”
Birthplace: Steubenville, Ohio
Current residence: Downtown Cincinnati
Family: Husband Steve Jemison; children Steffani, 38, Philip, 36
Education: Bachelor of arts in English, Lincoln University, Pennsylvania
Occupation: Volunteer, Ambassadors of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, ProKids, Advocates for Youth Education, the Women’s Committee of the Cincinnati Park Board and Greater Cincinnati Foundation. Serves on the board of the Taft Museum.
WHAT SHE SAYS:
What inspires you to give back/help others? “I’m inspired knowing that I can help provide advantages for others that they might not otherwise have. This includes emotional, educational, financial and practical support, diversity in the arts and cultural enrichment. I especially enjoy working with passionate, skilled staff members who are dedicated to helping make our community a better place.”
What problem or need in the community would you like to see addressed? “I have an idea to address what I see as an untapped opportunity – rather than a need or problem – in the area, but I’m not ready to share that yet.”
Who influenced or inspired you to care about others? “My parents didn’t have the volunteer opportunities that are available to me. However, they were leaders and very active in their church and they took an interest in our community. My mother was a very caring person with deep faith who believed strongly in helping those in need. My mother was my first example of kindness and compassion. She taught me that caring about others, especially those less fortunate, is not an obligation or responsibility. It’s just what you do.”
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