Mother of the Kroc
Members of Joanne Small’s community lovingly gave her the title “Mother of the Kroc” because she was a warm, motherly soul with a love for people and boundless energy to help others, whether it be as a teacher, a caregiver or as a listening ear. Her expertly crafted nails and Air Jordan sneakers earned her the nickname “Ms. J.” There wasn’t a job at the Boston Kroc Center that Ms. J could not do, and there wasn’t a person in need who she could turn away.
A presence in the community
When Small and her three children: David, Lakia, and Sadé moved to Charlestown, the oldest neighborhood within the city of Boston, they were only the second African–American family to live in the primarily Irish–American housing development.
David said, “I remember being called racial slurs, having eggs thrown at us by other kids, having our car tires deflated, and having the police harass me when I was coming home. But I was the oldest child and man of the house; no excuses were allowed. We all had to continue living our lives.”
Small knew the environment to which her children were being exposed. She also understood that to make an impact on that community, she had to engage it. She had to make herself known to those families who treated her children as outsiders. She took a job at the Harvard Kent Elementary School and attended community college to earn a degree in early childhood development.
At Harvard Kent, Joanne’s loving personality and ability to get through to children who no one else could reach became well known; she was the teacher who parents personally requested to educate their kids. Eventually in charge of her own classroom, she became a popular figure in the Charlestown community. At the same time, David was recognized locally for his skills in basketball. The Small family had gone from outsiders to being insiders.
David remembers, “Seeing that change, and how people treated us differently, was interesting. To this day, people come up to me and tell me that my mom was like a second mother to them in school.”
Front and (Kroc) Center
Due to budget cuts and a struggling local economy, Small was let go by Harvard Kent. When she applied to work at The Salvation Army Boston Kroc Center, David openly wondered if going from a job as a schoolteacher to a community center employee would be the best thing for her. “My mother was going to do what she wanted to do, but I soon realized that at the Kroc Center, her gift would be taken to the next level.”
Small began working with children in the Kroc’s afterschool program. Soon it became clear that her talent was transforming lives and changing hearts. When she moved to a permanent position on staff at the hub of the Kroc Center, the culture itself was affected by her warm personality.
“Making Ms. J the first face people saw when they entered the Kroc was the best place for her,” says Captain Darell Houseton, who met her when he was transferred to the Boston Kroc in 2016. “When you’re going to someplace new, she’s the person who you want to welcome you.”
From 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., Ms. J was on the clock. She was always ready with a hygiene kit and a call to the kitchen for food in case a homeless person came in looking for help. Children in the area, whether they were members of the Kroc or not, knew Ms. J and encouraged others to go to her if they needed help or advice.
“Ms. J once had a girl run to her saying that her mother was violently angry with her,” says Chris Sumner, the Boston Kroc’s chief operations executive. “The mother actually chased her daughter into the Kroc Center. Ms. J, who physically was much smaller than either of them, snatched both up and took them into an empty conference room. She was in there for three hours calming them down.”
During another memorable event outside of the Kroc Center, a troubled young man took his brother’s gun and confronted a bully. When he fired it into the air, Ms. J ran outside to him, now crying—and still holding the loaded weapon. Nonetheless, she held him close and calmed him as sirens from approaching police cruisers filled the air.
“She was an on–the–spot, and sometimes off–the–spot, mediator,” says Sumner. “Someone once referred to her as the Kroc’s own Mother Teresa, because just like that saint, Ms. J was known by her acts of pure selflessness and kindness.”
Captain Houseton says that Small’s unique brand of kindness made her a model employee of The Salvation Army. When a Kroc patron angrily complained of a negative experience and berated younger Kroc staff members, Ms. J was the one who spoke to the man. She listened to his concerns, but still defended her co–workers.
“She was loving and compassionate enough to hold this man accountable for what he did, but still wanted him to be the best he could be. She loved this man enough to correct him when he was wrong,” says Captain Houseton.
In 2017, basketball star Isaiah Thomas, who was a member of the Boston Celtics at the time, lost his sister Chyna in a tragic car accident. When he visited the Boston Kroc soon after, Thomas’ wife asked if Ms. J could personally console her husband. Ms. J obliged. “From the youngest child to the oldest, longest–serving officer visiting the Kroc, Ms. J treated everyone with the same love and respect,” says Captain Houseton.
Celebration of Life
On September 29, 2019, Chris Sumner invited Ms. J to talk about expanding her role at the Kroc Center. Just as she had been given her own classroom at Harvard Kent, Sumner wanted Ms. J to train others to be a force for kindness. “We want to make more of you,” Sumner remembers telling a surprised and overjoyed Ms. J.
Two days later, Ms. J passed away suddenly due to underlying health problems. Her funeral was branded a “Celebration of life: the life of ‘Mother of the Kroc.’” It was celebrated by 2,000 of her “children” whom she had influenced as a school teacher and as an employee of The Salvation Army.
The Kroc Center hosted Joanne Small’s repass. Though it was originally only meant for friends and family, many Kroc attendees also came to pay their respects. Some put their gym workout or pickup game on hold to go home, change, and return with a serving of food, all in the name of Ms. J and to pay tribute to her legacy.
“For everyone who says that they were impacted by Ms. J, I hope they know that, beginning with her move to Charlestown to her death, she worked hard to make that impact on the community. She never counted a single person out,” says Chris Sumner.
“I’m honored to be her son, and honored that she had that effect on others,” says David. “Some people are blessed with gifts. If those people find a job using such gifts, it becomes more than a job. It becomes part of who they are. My mother had that kind of a gift for people.”
by Hugo Bravo