Humans of Sweet Water...Meet Mama Betty

If you’ve ever made your way to the Perry Ave Commons, it’s likely that the smell of greens, freshly picked from the Perry Ave Farm and cooked with love, has lured you to the kitchen where Mama Betty is whipping up dishes for Sweet Water Foundation staff and visitors. A native of Alabama, Mama Betty moved to Chicago in the 1960’s and got involved with Sweet Water Foundation many years later through her husband, Orrin Williams, who is a former Board member and key advisor with Sweet Water Foundation (SWF). As Mama Betty approaches her fourth year with SWF, she’s not going anywhere anytime soon. She says, “My favorite thing of all is waking up in the morning and looking forward to coming to Sweet Water Foundation.”

Read on to learn more about Mama Betty.

Whenever you come to Sweet Water Foundation, you want to do something in your neighborhood, on your block.
— Mama Betty

Tell us a little about your background:

I was born in Alabama and lived between Alabama and Chicago for many years when I was young. When my mom passed in 1959, my siblings and I moved back to Alabama to live with my grandparents and aunt. We stayed down there until I was around the age of 18, when we returned to Chicago. I attended Truman College to study Early Childhood Education and worked in Early Childhood and Pre-K for 21 years until I retired. I’ve been a housewife since then.


How did you get involved with Sweet Water Foundation?

My husband served on the Board of Directors for Sweet Water Foundation. And is one of Emmanuel’s mentors. I have been working here for what soon will be four years.


What is your role here at Sweet Water Foundation?

I’m the cook and mentor to everyone who comes through the door. Especially, the young ones because they need us more.


What does that look like? Who are you cooking for and what are you cooking?

It depends on the day. We have visitors that come from all over the city and, even, the world. So you never know exactly how many people are going to be here. Some days it’s just our team and youth, which is about 25 people in the summer.  Other days, we will have our team, youth and an additional 40+ visitors.  Whoever comes through the door, we try to serve them in anyway we can with information on farming and nutrition, and also try give them a chance to taste the goodness we grow on the farm. When sharing information on nutrition and cooking, we turn no one down.


If you had unlimited resources, what project would you dediciate yourself to on the Perry Ave Commons?

Well culinary, of course. I especially would like to expose more young people to nutrition and culinary education. A lot of them don’t know anything about how food is grown, what the process is, and what you do with it once you harvest it.

I would also say childcare for parents who are interested. For those who want to come here, whether it’s to volunteer or to get a part-time or full-time job. Especially those in our neighborhoods because there are not a lot of jobs that we’re trained for. They took a lot out of school for the young people; there used to be home economics in school, they don’t have that anymore.


What is a notable memory that you’ve had here with SWF?

To see where we were when we first started and see where they are now. When we first started, I’d say there were maybe four people on the farm, doing most of the work. Now, we have more than 20 people here everyday. We are progressing. I also love it because Emmanuel makes sure that some of the young people in the neighborhood can work on their own block. And they're interested. It takes a while for them to learn, but I can see it on their faces when they’re excited about what they’re doing. I know it because they don’t make as many trips inside to get away from the heat! They’re interested in what’s going on outside.


What does Sweet Water Foundation mean to you?

My favorite part is that it is in our neighborhood. My second favorite is that it’s readily available for our people… all they need to do is come by...and we will explain to them...and I will tell them how to harvest and how to cook it. They can even come on a day when I’m not busy and I will cook it with them. I say it’s like going to church; when you go to church, you expect to get something out of it. So, that’s what I feel about Sweet Water Foundation. It’s a do-house, because whenever you come here you want to do something in your neighborhood, on your block. I know there’s more to come and I’m looking forward to that. I hope to be here for a long time to see it happen. Growing fresh, organic, food.


Favorite thing:

My favorite thing of all is waking up in the morning and looking forward to coming to Sweet Water Foundation.


Favorite restaurant:  My Kitchen


Final thoughts:

Bring it on!


Words of wisdom learned during interview with Mama Betty:

Know what’s in your neighborhood. Reach out to you alderman and let them know what you want. Go to Springfield, march for it. Demand it; not only good food, but school, reasonable prices, in our neighborhood.
— Mama Betty
Jia Li Pratt