Ex-homeless single mom thrives as mayor of Riverdale, Georgia

theGRIO REPORT - Dr. Evelyn Wynn-Dixon has come a long way. Her story is a testimony to her ability to overcome the odds and persevere through difficult times...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

RIVERDALE, Ga – Dr. Evelyn Wynn-Dixon has come a long way. Her story is a testimony to her ability to overcome the odds and persevere through difficult times.

At her lowest point she was a homeless single mom raising four young kids who contemplated suicide by throwing herself off a bridge.

In a frantic attempt “to find a way out” Wynn-Dixon made her way to Pryor Street Bridge in Atlanta, overlooking I-75, and was prepared to jump.

A life spiraling out of control

“I felt as if everything was gone and I’d ruined my life with one poor decision.”

She says her life spiraled out of control after she became pregnant during her first semester at Fort Valley State University.

Dixon, a high school honors student, was forced to abandon her scholarship and drop out. Upon returning home, her mother passed away, leaving her with a six-month-old baby to care for.

Soon afterwards she got married, partly to avoid the stigma of being a single mom. She had three more children, but then the relationship fell apart, her husband walked out and subsequently Dixon was evicted with four infants, aged between 8 weeks and 6 years old.

A vision saved her life

Dixon, an Atlanta native, says she only snapped out of the overwhelming desire to give up when she saw a vision of her mom. “I was selfish but in the end I couldn’t do it.”

It took many years to recover. But Dixon knew her only option was to educate herself out of welfare.

She went back to school, earned an associate degree and later a Bachelor of Science. In her early forties, Dixon graduated with a Masters from the University of Georgia with her two sons.

Later she completed a PhD in public health and forged a successful career as a case worker at Atlanta’s Grady Hospital, specializing in neurology, before taking on a new challenge as director of a hospice.

Still, it has been a difficult journey. When she first returned to higher education she made a six-mile trek from school to home because she was unable to afford public transportation.

“If one person can hear my story and think, ‘if she can do it, so can I,’ then I have done my job. I didn’t let my zip code make me. I made it for myself.”

In 2007, at the age of 59, with no prior political experience, Dixon launched a campaign to become mayor of the City of Riverdale in Clayton County, Georgia.

A new chapter

“I never desired to be in politics, never ever.” But Dixon, a devout Christian, says a prophetic vision and the hand of fate opened doors for the start of a new chapter in her life.

“I prayed for it to be a sweat-less victory and for God to order my steps,” says Dixon, who was already well-known in the Riverdale for her commitment as a community foot soldier.

“The campaign cost less than $3000. We had a runoff and I won.”

The highly-accessible ‘People’s Mayor’ says from the start her dream has been to “change the branding and imaging of the City of Riverdale.”

A struggling city

Since the early 1990s the city has been blighted by unflattering crime statistics coming out of the county that are higher than Georgia’s state average. Clayton County school system also lost its accreditation in 2008, which it regained in 2009 for a two-year probationary period.

Outsiders have “misconceptions” about residents who live on the south side of Atlanta. “I want to make Riverdale a family-oriented city that people are proud to call home.”

Indeed, since Dixon was elected mayor of Riverdale her administration has made tremendous effort to transform the predominately African-American city of 16,000, nestled in the Southern Crescent of Metro Atlanta.

During her first term, residents have taken pride in a brand new City Hall and a new, state-of-the-art town center and amphitheatre, which is fast becoming the new epicenter of culture and entertainment in south Atlanta.

‘Mama of the City’

Dixon, 64, who is affectionately known as the “Mama of the City” has also been instrumental in establishing a Riverdale Business Coalition, Citizen Advisory Committee, COPS Program and Senior Triad, has partnered with Clayton Board of Education as a motivational speaker and has implemented and participated in many youth programs.

She says her vision is for “Riverdale to be the new Buckhead of the South.” Buckhead is an affluent neighborhood north of Atlanta.

She says she finished her first term with a balanced budget, a nominal surplus, and economic growth. The mayor, who has an open door policy, was unopposed for her second term and still has big dreams ahead.

Plans are already in place to boost the local economy with the development of a plush hotel, luxury apartments and a training center to create 900 jobs through the railroads.

Dixon believes the city has so much potential. It is only 15 minutes south of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. The area is a commutable drive to downtown Atlanta.

Her biggest goal, though, is to use her inspiring journey to “empower, motivate and give people hope.”

“You can’t become a victim of your circumstances. Nobody owes you anything. If you don’t work you won’t eat, unless you’re disabled.”

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