Elnor Tillson, a good Samaritan who was often the last hope for needy families, homeless people and others with nowhere else to turn as the head of Travelers Aid – Emergency Assistance Agency, died May 30 of cancer, her family said. She was 81.
For more than 50 years, Mrs. Tillson served as a lifeline for tenants facing eviction, families who fell behind on utility bills, people with no safe place to spend the night and countless others in crisis. She settled in Sacramento and joined the Travelers Aid Society in 1963 as a social worker committed to helping working people.
As executive director, she oversaw changes in the name and the mission of the nonprofit group, which began as a place to turn for visitors stranded without fare for bus tickets or other means to return home. Today, the agency’s services include financial assistance for rent, payments to utility shutoffs, emergency motel vouchers and transitional housing.
But Mrs. Tillson was more than a service provider. In addition to moving homeless clients into housing, she obtained food and clothing for them. She helped enroll children in school, and she linked parents with jobs or training programs. She offered encouragement, left a phone number where she could be reached after hours and on weekends, and set families on a path to recovery.
“Elnor went above and beyond,” said program officer Donna Mobley of United Way California Capital Region. “She nurtured those families. She could use a little tough love with them – but sometimes that’s what people really need to hear when they’re not certain about what their next steps in life should be. She guided them.”
Mrs. Tillson was a widely respected veteran in the social services community. She served on a Sacramento County homelessness task force and the United Way Agencies executive committee. She taught social work at California State University, Sacramento, and trained students in field work.
In addition, she influenced many young people as an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a national African American sorority. For more than 25 years, she served as adviser and oversaw community service projects for the Sacramento chapter’s annual class of debutantes, who knew her as “Mama T.” She was a role model for many young women who went on to be teachers, doctors, lawyers and business leaders.
“You do things that make you feel like you have done something worthwhile,” she told The Sacramento Bee in 2003. “After I have been able to touch the lives of these girls and have a role in helping to mold them, I feel good.”
Born Sept. 17, 1932, and raised in Ashland, Ky., Elnor Francis Miller was 16 when her father died. Her mother, a housekeeper, used her husband’s Social Security survivor benefits to send Elnor and her sister to college. She earned an education degree from Central State University in Ohio, where she met Richard Tillson.
The couple married in 1955, had two children and lived in Ohio and Indiana. She was a county welfare case worker in Indianapolis before the family moved to Sacramento, where her husband had a long career in the California Youth Authority. She earned a master of social work degree from California State University, Sacramento.
Mrs. Tillson held leadership positions as an active member of St. Andrews AME Church in Sacramento for more than 50 years. She received many awards from community service organizations, including United Way, the YWCA and Alpha Kappa Alpha.
“From the time she was in her mother’s womb, she was programmed to love people, to value people and to encourage people,” friend Jean Crim said. “Her whole life was about helping the working poor – not as a job, but as her life.”
Mrs. Tillson’s marriage to her husband, a former CYA deputy director, ended in divorce. Her son, Richard, died two years ago.
She is survived by a daughter, Karen, and a sister, Alforetta Hughes. A memorial is set for 11 a.m. June 16 at St. Andrews AME Church, 2131 Eighth St., Sacramento.
Memorial donations may be made to Travelers Aid – Emergency Assistance Agency, 2251 Florin Road, Suite 124, Sacramento, CA 95822.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.