Carolyn Collins, DeKalb’s compassionate custodian, dies at 58

Eight years ago, Tucker High School custodian Carolyn Collins found two students at 6 a.m. knocking on the school’s cafeteria doors, hoping to find something to eat. She gave them snacks and learned they were homeless, living in a car with other family members. The next day, she provided more snacks.

The school’s counselors told her other students faced similar challenges. Soon, Collins had converted a storage area into a resource closet stuffed with toiletries and personal hygiene items, food and drinks as well as clothes and school supplies. The project grew to become a non-profit, Carolyn’s Giving Closet, with donations coming from radio personality Steve Harvey, Sam’s Club, civic organizations and community members.

Collins died December 28 of metastatic thyroid cancer, family members said. She was 58.

“She was an amazing person with a magnetic personality who was always smiling,” said Tucker High School principal Eric Parker. “I had heard about the closet before I arrived, but I saw her in action — students’ families would come up during the day with various needs, and she would help get them what they needed.”

If a student arrived wearing clothes that violated the dress code, they could drop by Carolyn’s closet for something meeting school guidelines. Those going for job interviews could find neckties and dress shirts. If a student was too embarrassed to admit they wanted help, Collins would pass along whatever was needed to a guidance counselor or teacher. Collins worked with the school social worker to meet students’ physical, social and emotional needs. Parker said the compassionate custodian was ‘the most generous woman I’ve ever met.’”

She even took care of Parker. On a cold day, he was working on bus duty and she fussed at him, asking if he wanted to get sick. She gave him a hat from the giving closet, “and got me squared away,” he said.

In addition to supplies and snacks at Tucker High, Collins began distributing Thanksgiving turkeys and backpacks filled with school supplies to middle schools whose students eventually go to Tucker. She would give out gift cards to families during the holidays and coats to children in the wintertime.

And whether she was at work, at home or out and about, “she always looked flawless,” said her sister-in-law Lithornia Harper. “Her hair, nails and makeup always had to be perfect. Even working as a janitor, she was very put together.”

Before joining Tucker High, Collins worked 25 years as an inspector on an assembly line at Woodbridge Atlanta Foam in Lithonia. She was a diehard Atlanta Falcons fan, proudly wearing her red jersey.

She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2019, “but she was always so positive, you wouldn’t have any idea what she was going through,” said her daughter Brianna Miller. “She just had this energy. I plan to continue with Carolyn’s Giving Closet.”

Collins’ brother, Michael Harper, said his younger sister was “always an in-charge person.” She organized a family motorcycle club, Eye Catchaz MC, served as the first president and planned activities, “even though she didn’t even have a bike,” said Lithornia Harper. “She loved all the social get-togethers.”

After years of Zoom meetings and phone calls, masking and social distancing, Carolyn Collins decided that this past Thanksgiving was going to be in-person. She contacted extended family, planned games, found caterers and made her famous deviled eggs. On Thanksgiving Day, more than 70 people gathered at Lithornia and Michael Harper’s house, “and it was so much fun, it was great, just great,” Lithornia said.

As the holiday season unfolded, Carolyn entered Emory hospital, as she had before for treatment. On December 26, she messaged her sister-in-law that she was coming home the next day, and “as usual, she was telling people what to do,” said Harper.

The next day, Emory officials told the family if they wanted to say good-bye, they needed to come. “It was a shocker that she was dying, to her and all of us,” said Brianna Miller. “She had always come home.”

Carolyn Harper Collins is survived by her father, William Harper, husband Steven Collins, son Antonio Harper, daughter Brianna Miller, siblings Michael Harper and Linda Harper and her granddaughter Kyleigh Harper. A celebration of life will be January 7 a at noon at St. Philip AME Church, 240 Chandler Road, SE, Atlanta.

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