STARKVILLE — When entering Starkville Cafe, one thing sure to stand out through the sea of faces is the smile of Shirley Powell.
Some people call her Shelia. Others Shirley. She laughs when she thinks about the mixup that caused her different names.
“My momma said when she named me, it was supposed to be Shelia on my birth certificate, but it ended up being Shirley and she never changed it,” Powell said.
Under either name, Powell for more than two decades has greeted each customer at the cafe as if talking to family, and she treats them that way too, all while wearing her signature smile.
However, underneath that smile lies pain that stems from a recent tragedy.
Powell’s home in Maben was heavily damaged after a fire on Monday.
Powell, 50, and her husband, Ricky, 49, live with their four grandchildren, Jameria McKinney, 12, Jakaylah Jernigan, 8, Jeffrey Jernigan, 7, and Zamir Cousins, 1.
According to Powell, the fire started after the oven was accidentally left on when she and Ricky went to pick up a grandchild in West Point. No one was hurt in the fire.
“At first I was very emotional and upset and just heartbroken,” she said. “We took everything we had, remodeled our home and got it paid down so we could live comfortably. But when that fire came, it put us in a dark spot, but God is showing us light again.”
That light is the community, which is reaching out to and rallying around Powell and her family.
“Even though we lost a lot of things that we cherished and were old memories to us, it let us know that we do have a second chance at life, and they’re willing to help us as much as possible,” Powell said. “When I started receiving those calls, I felt better with myself because I know it would have been a struggle without the good Lord first, and our community.”
One such community member who reached out was SaPerior Patton, president of Safe Place Foundation Inc., an organization that helps people in need with meals and living accommodations.
“(Powell) would sometimes donate to that program, also when she saw me helping other people who are in need, the homeless, so forth and so on, she donated help,” Patton said. “Also, I used to have a boutique for seven years and she was one of my customers.”
This twist of fate brought the two back into contact, and Patton immediately began the process of helping Powell regain her footing.
“That lady is a blessing, and if God ever puts me in a position where I can bless somebody, I want to bless her because she loves to bless this community,” Powell said.
Powell also is getting help from at least one high-profile former customer. New York Mets outfielder and former Mississippi State baseball player Jake Mangum tweeted his support for Powell.
“Mrs. Shelia is one of the most kind human beings on Earth,” the tweet reads. “She works at my favorite breakfast spot in Starkville…Please help any way possible!”
Passion for people
Even through this whole ordeal, Powell has not lost her smile. Nor has she lost her dedication to her work.
“Well, Shirley has been here for over 20 years, so she is a staple here at the cafe, she is part of what the cafe is,” said general manager Darin Beall. “She’s the type of server that she’s watching out the front window, and if she sees your car pull up and knows who it is, your drink’s sitting on the table, where she knows you’re going to sit, before you even sit down.”
While Powell could have moved on at any point, she didn’t. Instead, she has stayed here with the people she loves and who love her.
“I just love all of my customers, from the babies all the way up through the older ones,” she said. “… I have had job offers to work at other places, but I decided to stay at the cafe. I have been there going on 23 years, and I love it because I love meeting new people. That’s me. People are my passion.”
This passion extends outside of work as well.
“I don’t have a lot, but when I have another person going through some troubles, I’m going to give them something,” she said. “I’m going to help in some kind of way … whether it’s a prayer, whether it’s a ride, whether it’s food or maybe just a phone call. I am going to try and be a blessing to somebody.”
There is still a long way to go before the family is in a comfortable place, however, and there are still many things that are needed.
“We lost everything,” Powell said. “We lost clothes and shoes, we lost our furniture and our home. … My main thing right now is getting us another place to live. … We are just grateful for anything that the community gives us.”
The family is currently staying with Powell’s mother, who suffers from dementia, but they hope to be back in their own place soon.
So far, they have received monetary donations from many people as well as clothing and other necessities.
A GoFundMe that was set up for the family had raised $8,750 as of Saturday afternoon.
The original Facebook post by Patton also has the different sizes of the clothes needed and other ways to give. Donations are also being accepted at the cafe.
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