According to her son, Sam Odle, Helen Clay saw her community as family. “She started with her family, made sure they were taken care of and extended that to the entire community,” he said. “She was a one-woman United Way; she constantly assessed what was needed in her neighborhood and would motivate others to get involved and help out.”
Born in Sheridan, Ind. in 1919, she believed in rural values and thought it was everyone’s responsibility to look out for one another. Even from an early age, she was committed to improving and supporting her community. “People recognize the world was a better place because she was here. She left things in a better condition than when she got here,” Odle said.
Clay was incredibly influenced by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and two leaders of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Height. Inspired by their work on the national scale, Clay became an active participant in the movement from right here in Indianapolis as part of the NCNW Indianapolis section.
NCNW was her passion for decades, up until her health began to deteriorate. She served as president for many years and received the Presidents Award in 1996 for her service to the organization. Due to her ability to organize and engage people, she was recruited to serve the community by mayors dating back to Richard Lugar and received the Sagamore of the Wabash, one of the highest distinctions in Indiana, from Governors Robert Orr and Evan Bayh.
Clay’s passion for the community was felt far and wide. She served as president of the Riverside Civic League, Fox Hill Neighborhood Association, Flanner House Guild and Usher Board of St. John A.M.E. Church, where she was an active member for over 61 years. She was known for saying, “God has no hands but our hands, and no feet but our feet. To have God’s will done, we need to be the workers.”
“I am stopped by women weekly who tell stories about how Helen Clay inspired them to get involved in their community,” said Odle. “Helen received many awards, but her pride was helping others whenever possible. She passed away in 2010 and deserved the rest for a life full of service to her community.”