CORAL SPRINGS, FL – Barely home from running around Coral Springs and collecting clothing for homeless children, Dr. Bessie Cristwell is already planning to get back in her car and find even more clothing.
It’s a constant go-go-go for the 74-year-old retired teacher and school administrator. She’s quick to admit that she talks fast, thinks fast and moves fast. How else, she said, can you help the helpless, like children trapped in poverty.
“I keep myself busy doing things that make a difference,” said Dr. Cristwell, who has a doctorate degree in psychology and theology.
She recently got the Coral Springs MLK Monument Award for her decades of work in assisting underprivileged children.
In front of an audience at the Coral Springs Center for the Arts on Jan. 17, Dr. Cristwell got honored for many achievements, among them: helping raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for scholarships for youth struggling to pay for college and trade school, and helping create a day of learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And that was just for her public service on Coral Springs’ Martin Luther King Jr. Committee and Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee for the past 25 years. There’s a whole other list of accomplishments that some would say stands out even more -- most notably being among the first African-American teachers in integrated schools in Broward County and Arkansas in the late 1960s, standing tall against cold glances and harsh words.
She said she was destined to make a difference because her father told her she had to. As the oldest of six children growing up in the poor, rural community of Belle Glade in Palm Beach County, he told her to set an example for her sisters and brothers by becoming educated, finding good jobs, and getting involved in community service.
“He said: what do you show for in this life? It’s got to be something positive,” Dr. Cristwell said.
So she became a teacher. In Broward County, she worked for four schools before getting a job with the school district office specializing in multi-cultural education. She made sure children took learning about cultures and diversity seriously.
“I didn’t want anyone sitting in the back of the room cutting up papers,” she said.
All along, the long-time Coral Springs resident got involved in the city’s committees and dedicated herself, in particular, to the grinding work of raising money for student scholarships. She wasn’t shy about asking friends or businesses for contributions. To date, more than $300,000 has been awarded to more than 320 students, Dr. Cristwell said.
“I’m really proud of that,” she said.
Since retiring in 2003, she has only stepped up her volunteer work. Still a part of the city committees, she’s now deeply involved in helping homeless children.
Uplifting children, she said, has been her life’s mission – no matter if it’s through scholarships or clothing donations.
“In life, it’s not where you start, it’s where you end up,” she said. “That’s how I’ve led my life.”