Lela Triplett-Roberts has never really left school.
She played teacher at age 8, instructing her younger siblings in their N.E. Rodney Street home. She performed the duties of teacher and principal for more than four decades at Portland schools, commuting from her modest turn-of-the-century in the Vernon neighborhood. Even today, retired and closing in on 71, she serves up lessons along with chili and cornbread at a northeast Portland parish school a half-mile away, where she volunteers four days a week.
It takes a little longer these days to roll out of bed, Roberts said. But she wakes up each day feeling driven, in part by her United Methodist upbringing, in part by instruction her parents gave on how to live, in part by the very people she serves.
“It’s hard to go through life if you just get up and the only thing you think about is yourself and how you’re going to make things better for yourself,” she said. “Most people don’t see the opportunity to volunteer as a way to make life better for yourself. But when I wake up… I know I have a purpose for that day. I know they’re waiting for Ms. Roberts to come and prepare lunch.”
Roberts is being honored with the 2018 Gladys McCoy Award for her volunteer work at the tuition-free St. Andrew Nativity School and for her role in the public-service driven Delta Sigma Theta sorority for more than 40 years. Among her contributions with that sorority: raising money to convert an abandoned gas station into the June Key Community Center, an African American-owned community and education space where residents can receive vision, hearing, blood-pressure and car-seat checks, dispose of unused medications and obtain syringe disposal boxes.
The annual McCoy Award, given in the name of the late Multnomah County Chair Gladys McCoy, honors people who have contributed outstanding community service and citizen involvement in areas of civil and human rights, neighborhood revitalization, local government, environmental issues, and education.
“She has led a purpose-driven life,” said Justin Scalzol, the business manager at St. Andrew’s Nativity who nominated Roberts for the award. “There’s a lot of sadness in the world. We’re all little ants, going about our daily routines, trying to make ends meet, rushing along. But for her it’s a whole different perspective. Her calendar is chock-full, but it all has purpose for her. She has lived her life on her terms, and I so admire that.”
Roberts, the oldest of four kids, was born in 1947 Detroit, where her father ran a dry cleaning service. The family moved to Oregon when Roberts was 5 to join her mother’s family. Roberts graduated from the Girls Polytechnic High School, then attended Oregon State University on a full scholarship. She earned a bachelor’s, and then a master’s in education.
“My father always told us, ‘you can be whatever you want to be.’ He never said, ‘you’re going to have a hard time because you’re black,’” Roberts said. “He always told us, ‘you can be what you want, but always make sure whatever you do is honest.’ I never doubted I was going to be a teacher.”
Roberts worked in Portland Public Schools for 40 years, both as a teacher and as a principal. Her students included the children of Gladys McCoy, the teachers and principal of the parish school where she now volunteers, and current county employees.
“She was stern. As soon as you got into the classroom, it was time to work,” said Janette Quan-Torres, a graphic designer with the county’s Communications Office who took English from Roberts in middle school. Quan-Torres said she learned something else, just by watching Roberts interact with others.
“She taught me how to be a woman, a woman of color, in society,” she said. “The way she carried herself and spoke to people with respect. It didn’t matter who you were; you could be a student or a colleague.”
Roberts has a reputation as lovingly gruff, with an ability to tell hard truths — sometimes unsolicited — in a way that people can hear.
“She can be so direct with students,” said Scalzol with the St. Andrews school. “She has this respect and trust. When she looks at them and says, ‘clean up that attitude,’ or ‘tuck in your shirt,’ It’s, ‘Yes, ma’am!’”
Yet, even while working full-time in education, Roberts volunteered in the community.
“I show up every day like I’m getting paid. I got that from home, growing up,” she said. “I’m walking in my mother’s shadow. I remember she always taught us not to be what she called, ‘takers.’”
“You have to always give back,” her mother would say. “You owe it to your community. You owe it to other African American people who are not as fortunate as you.”
So Roberts shows up for the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. And four mornings a week she arrives at the St. Andrews Nativity School by 8 a.m. and pulls on her apron to cook quality meals for low-income youth.