LoveLakeland’s August 2018 CityMaker

Annie Phyall

By Jonathan Camargo

Pictured: CREATE at Catapult, Gillian Fazio

Last year, Lakeland ranked in the top 100 of the best-performing cities in the U.S. by the Milken Institute. With continued economic expansion, this year seems even more promising.

While new businesses and faces help keep Lakeland lively, we can’t just forget about those that need our help. Our July 2018 CityMaker knows they’ve been here all along.

Nothing more than necessary

Annie Phyall’s business card is succinct. It features a PO box address and a cell phone number, accompanied by a simple, two-word title: community activist.

Perhaps the only thing she’s missing is the motto by which she motivates others.

“Do what you’re able to do,” Annie says. “Don’t try to do too much, but do what you can do comfortably.”

The forefront

Like many of us, Annie’s story started here. Well, it almost started here.

Annie was officially born in Fort Valley, Georgia, while her family was in the middle of visiting her terminally ill grandfather. After he passed, Annie returned home to the place she had yet to live, see, or experience: Lakeland.

A Rochelle High School grad, Annie earned her Bachelor’s of Science from Bethune Cookman College in 1971. She returned home that same year to begin teaching at Medulla Elementary School. Unbeknownst to her, Annie was about to begin a teaching career that would span nearly four incredible decades.

Just a little heart

Things were different in Annie’s classroom. The listening ear she offered her students did far more than just listen it sent tsunami waves of affective change through members of our community and beyond.

Annie taught students of all backgrounds and beliefs in her 39 years of teaching. On the frontlines of the divide between our education system and the home, Annie stood strong as a pillar of support for her students and their dreams, including the ones they didn’t know they had yet.

“I used to do a unit every year where I would get poster boards and I’d give ‘em to all the kids in my class,” Annie said. “I had a college career kit in my classroom and I’d tell ‘em, ‘Go through that kit and find out what you want to do for life.’

“They’d look at the job requirements, salary and just everything that you’d have to do if you took the position. Then I would get an AutoShopper and a house magazine and tell them, ‘Find the car you wanna drive. Cut it out, glue it on your poster board. Find the house you wanna live in. Cut it out, glue it on your poster board.’“

Annie then instructed her students to write their position and salary on the poster board alongside their hastily glued-on dreams of material success. After, she’d have them fill out insurance applications for both the car and the home they had selected. With all this in mind, she then took the student’s hypothetical salary and developed a budget for them, often to the student’s surprise.

“I had one little boy tell me, ‘I had no idea my mother was spending this much money for insurance,’“ Annie said.

Ultimately, Annie’s philosophy in the classroom was to prepare her students for the world outside it.

As disheartening as it may be, many of Annie’s students weren’t fortunate enough to think that far ahead financial issues and troubled home lives often took precedence. While some of her students raved of summer vacations abroad, others kept to themselves, never having left Lakeland once in their entire lives.

“That was one of the things that I enjoyed about working with CROP,” Annie said. “We would take the kids on college tours all over the state of Florida.”

CROP, which stands for the College Reach-Out Program, is a program hosted by Polk State College designed to motivate and prepare educationally-disadvantaged students in grades 6-12 to attend college and seek out other postsecondary education opportunities. In 2007, Annie won Polk State College’s appreciation award for her involvement in the program.

“We’d take the kids on college experience trips every summer,” Annie said. “They would get the experience of living in a dormitory, going to college classes, eating in the restaurants, and living with a roommate.”

In 2018, after 29 years with the program, Annie stepped down from her post, leaving in her wake an unparalleled legacy of commitment and passion for the betterment of our community’s youth.

“Do what you’re able to do,” Annie says. “Don’t try to do too much, but do what you can do comfortably.”

“Do what you’re able to do,” Annie says. “Don’t try to do too much, but do what you can do comfortably.”

For a community that needs it

Annie’s altruistic experiences aren’t limited to the classroom. She’s been making strides to improve the lives of others in our community for nearly just as long. An outspoken advocate for our city’s homeless population, Annie sympathizes with the plight of those who have fallen on hard times.

“I work with these people every day. You would be surprised at the people, right now, who don’t have anywhere to live,” Annie said.

As dismal as some situations may be, Annie never strays to extend a helping hand. It’s always been in her nature to do just that.

“If you see people suffering, just doing without, and you can just pass that up and do nothing? Then there’s something wrong with you,” Annie said.

Knowing that poverty doesn’t just affect those on our streets, Annie champions the fight for our community’s rights in practically every cause she’s affiliated with. Her time investment may be great, but that doesn’t stop her from consistently going the extra mile and standing up for those members of our community who are unable to stand for themselves.

“My biggest concern is helping the seniors and these little children,” Annie said. “These seniors have worked so hard to build America, and now we can’t give them something?”

Although Annie does her best, she’s still often faced with a general lack of awareness regarding the local support systems that are already in place.

“We have a lot of seniors who don’t know about these things that they can take advantage of,” Annie shared.

Thankfully, Annie isn’t alone in her efforts in bringing these resources to light. As a trusted community confidant, Annie works closely with the police and fire departments, as well several other Lakeland-based agencies, to highlight these resources and enact social change where it’s needed most.

Back to reality

Sharper today than probably ever before, Annie cites staying active and staying in communication with others as the primary factors of her longevity, which has allowed her to continue making a positive impact on our community and all of its members.

“When you get out there and you do the work in the community that needs to be done, and you see the results of it, then you live longer too,” Annie said.

From her 1986 Teacher of the Year award at Medulla Elementary to her status as the 2016 Grand Marshall of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Community Parade, Annie’s done it all and seen the results of it, too.

At 85 years young, Annie may be retired from teaching, but she still has some lessons left to give.

“When you have a desire to do things, and you do it and you get it done, you rest better at night,” Annie shared. “No sleeping pills needed.”