Holiday Heroes: Slain son inspires outreach program

Even before her son’s funeral, Rosa Arnold-Colbert knew she had to forgive the men convicted of shooting him to death.

“These guys put notches on their belt for everyone they killed,” said Arnold-Colbert, recalling the 1995 crime. “My son was No. 17.”

During the shooters’ trial, Arnold-Colbert, who had been living in Detroit, felt a new calling. She moved back to Atlanta and founded the Albert T. Mills Enrichment Center in memory of her son, who was 32 when he was shot to death in the package store where he was working a part-time job for extra money. Located south of downtown in Atlanta’s Lakewood Heights neighborhood, the nonprofit preschool that bears his name now serves children from Atlanta’s inner-city neighborhoods.

“It was just in my heart that something had to happen to them from the time they were little boys,” she said of the two men convicted and sentenced to prison terms. “I pray for them all the time. I had to forgive them before they even buried my son. I didn’t want any bitterness in my heart. My son wouldn’t want me to hate them. God has given me a peace.”

Arnold-Colbert has been featured in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the years in good times, such as when she was honored at a volunteer symposium at Emory University in 1998, and in bad, such as when her center was burglarized in 2008. Now she is being honored as one of the AJC’s Holiday Heroes.

“Her heart is for other people,” said Carroll Wills, who met Arnold-Colbert through a friend at church. “She inspires me to make me want to be a better person. You never hear Rosa say anything unkind about anybody. All you would ever hear her say is, ‘They need to be prayed for.’ She takes the word of Christ and lives it. She doesn’t just talk it. She walks it.”

Susan Beabes recently signed on as chair of the Mills Center’s board, not long after meeting Arnold-Colbert.

“I don’t usually jump on someone’s bandwagon so quickly,” Beabes said. “I could tell that she was a woman of God. Seeing these children all around me made me realize this was where God wanted me to serve.”

Part of Beabes’ role will be helping the center apply for grants. The needs are great and unrelenting.

“These children would have nowhere to go without her,” Beabes said. “Some of the children don’t have beds to sleep in. They have great difficulties at home.”

Arnold-Colbert said the center nourishes her young charges both physically and spiritually.

“I found out at the beginning that a lot of these kids were hungry,” she said. “A hungry child is an unhappy child. We teach them to say the Lord’s Prayer. I teach them about Jesus. They love to pray. They love to sing. They love to hear Bible stories. The workers who work with them take time out to tell them they’re special.”

In the 16 years she has run the center she’s never charged for its services. She knows she is ineligible for some grants due to the faith-based nature of the center. She is undeterred, faithful that sufficient donations will arrive.

“I’ve been blessed by so many people,” she said. “Each one of our children every year has a beautiful Christmas. They feel loved.”

Many of the children call her “Grandmama.” She said she is as grateful to them as the community is to her.

“This has helped me get through the grief,” she said. “It’s made not only a difference in their life. It’s made a difference in my life.”