FD native overcomes humble beginnings; Bullock made history on her way to starting nonprofit in South Carolina
In some ways, Sandra Bullock, now 77, believes her life is better than ever.
Bullock, who was born and spent part of her childhood in Fort Dodge, invested her entire life savings to start a nonprofit organization in Greenville, South Carolina. The 501(c)(3) organization, called First Impression of South Carolina, is geared toward helping others find work, medical care, a place to live and various other charitable causes. She did that age 74.
“My life is better now in my 70s when I reel back the tape than it was in my 30s and 40s because I was drinking and doing selfish things,” she said.
An only child, Bullock was born at Mercy Hospital in Fort Dodge. She lived at what was called 10th Avenue Southwest near Harry’s Chicken Shack.
“That’s where everyone went to eat,” said Bullock in regards to the restaurant owned by Harry Meriwether, one of the first Black business owners in Fort Dodge.
There was also an Italian-owned grocery store and a large train roundhouse nearby. Many of the homes and businesses are now gone. Fort Dodge is hardly recognizable for Bullock. And in many ways, the life she lives today is unrecognizable compared to her humble beginnings.
“All the homes and houses next to the river, all of that’s gone now,” Bullock said. “The old train station is closed now. If you went back over the tracks and looked down the hill, that’s where all the Black folks lived. Fort Dodge has just changed so much over the years. I was born and raised there but now I don’t even know where I’m going.”
Growing up, Bullock often felt like two different people. She attended school at Riverside and then Wahkonsa.
“I went to school all day with whites,” Bullock said. “I sometimes was the only Black child in class. So I tell people I learned to live in both worlds. During the day I went to school with the whites. But then I went home down the railroad tracks to where the Black folks lived. It was a totally different atmosphere.”
EXPOSED TO TRAGEDY AT A YOUNG AGE, Bullock had to grow up fast. Her biological father, James Townzel, died from diabetes complications when she was 9.
Then at age 11, Bullock witnessed the murder of her aunt, Josephine Culps in August of 1955. Culps was shot and killed by her ex-husband at a gas station.
“I remember when he chased her out of the house,” Bullock said. “I could hear the gunfire, tires screeching, people screaming.”
Bullock then ran over to the gas station, located along Second Avenue South. The gas station was located not far from where Coppin Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church stands today.
“I ran over to the station where I heard the sounds,” Bullock said. “When I got through the gas station, blood was everywhere. I saw her take her last breath.”
Soon after, Bullock fainted.
She remembers waking up back at the house where her aunt lived, which was next door to the gas station.
“My mom was just screaming to the top of her voice downstairs,” she said.
Culps was the mother of seven young children.
At that time, Bullock and her mother had moved away to Sioux City. But she was back in Fort Dodge visiting Culps.
“Every summer I would come watch her kids,” Bullock said. “She was 23 maybe when she got killed. I have some beautiful memories of her. She was a beautiful woman. Everybody loved her. She was just wild. God took her really young.”
The nightmare experience impacted Bullock even more than she thought.
“I remember how traumatized I was as a child and then I had to testify,” Bullock said. “Over the years it affected me more than I thought it did in my life.”
The house and the gas station are no longer standing.
After the death of her aunt, Bullock, her mother and step father moved back to Fort Dodge to care for Culps’ children.
Bullock attended junior high in Fort Dodge. She dropped out of school at age 16.
“Like a lot of young women, I ended up being a teen mama,” she said.
In the 1960s, Bullock took a number of odd jobs, ranging from detasseling corn, dishwashing to working at a travel lodge.
“I think I made 60 cents an hour at 17 years old,” she said.
At one time, she was living on welfare.
“I said you gotta go, girlfriend,” Bullock said, referring to the need to reach for new goals.
Later, she earned her GED.
“I probably should have went to college,” she said. “But I didn’t like school when I was in school.”
Bullock left Fort Dodge for Waterloo in 1965. In 1966, she moved to the Quad Cities. By that time she was raising three children of her own.
Her ultimate goal was to work for the city of Davenport. But first she worked for Iowa State Extension Outreach through Iowa East Central Train.
Eventually, she got the call she was looking for.
“I’ll never forget,” she said. “I started at the city in July of 1977. I became the city’s relocation housing specialist. It was a totally brand new funded program. They pretty much told me that it had been funded for a year and if it didn’t work, I wouldn’t have a job.”
BULLOCK BECAME THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN to work at City Hall in Davenport.
“I hung in there,” Bullock said. “I loved it. I loved my job.”
In that role, Bullock helped families relocate to properties that were in better condition.
“I would go out and meet the family where they were at at the condemned property and help them find a new place to move to,” Bullock said. “The city would help with up to $500 to get relocated.
“Fact is we did such a great job with that program in Davenport that after five years of me being there, we were the only ones left doing it. Our program was the only one that survived in the state.”
There were five total cities that took part in that program, she said.
“I would follow up, make sure they were paying rent, tried to help them,” Bullock said. “It became a really good program.”
But throughout that time, Bullock was fighting her own demons. She describes herself as a functioning alcoholic during that time.
“My alcoholism got worse,” Bullock said. “I drank a lot. I was a weekend binger. My second husband (Charles) said, ‘Sandy you got a problem.’ But he stuck by me.”
Bullock sought treatment in 1984.
It’s been 36 years since she she’s had a drink.
“Everybody welcomed me back,” Bullock said.
Bullock left her job with the city in 1991 to start a new venture.
“I told him (husband) in 1991 I’m going to start a transitional housing program for homeless families with children under 18 and he said, ‘are you drinking again?'” Bullock recalled.
She believed in the cause.
Bullock ended up starting Neighborhood Place Inc. in Davenport. She ran that program for almost a decade.
“I learned a lot at the city and opened a lot of doors to be able to help people like people helped me when I was in the struggle,” Bullock said. “I’ll never forget where I came from.
“The struggle I had as a single mother raising my kids and that’s probably why I’m doing what I’m doing now. I’ve seen people go through these programs and agencies and get treated terrible.”
Bullock and her husband moved to Greenville, South Carolina in 1998. She took a job with the YWCA doing outreach. Then she worked for the American Cancer Society until her retirement in 2007. Her husband, who suffered from sarcoidosis, passed away in 2005.
Later, Bullock worked as Greenville County coordinator for Circles USA in South Carolina. The organization gathers middle-income and high-income volunteers to support families in poverty.
Finally, she found First Impression in 2019 to help families in crisis.
“I decided at this stage in my life, it was on my bucket list to help people and pay it forward and do it without anybody telling me how to do it,” Bullock said.
The organization provides transitional housing for homeless women. But it’s more than that.
First Impression helps people who encounter a variety of problems.
“We help the homeless, we do job referrals, housing referrals, food share program, medical referral,” Bullock said.
One of her top focuses right now is helping homeless families with children under 17.
Being a relatively new organization and working to help people through the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging to say the least.
“It’s been a struggle,” she said. “When you don’t have a track record, it’s hard to get funding and support. When you’re a new kid on the block, people don’t just give you grants and money because they don’t know if you’ll make it or not. I’m starting to bring in state money, county money, but you’ve got to have cashflow in your bank account. I just got a $250,000 grant, it’s a draw down. I just put a family up in a hotel and cost me $1,000. I’ll get that money back but had to pay for that stuff on the front end.”
But the struggles are worth it when Bullock sees her organization making a difference in the lives of others. And Bullock now sees that none of it would be possible if she didn’t help herself first.
“I say God first and then me,” she said. “That may sound selfish, but if you don’t take care of yourself then it’s hard for other things to do well in life. I’m not a Bible thumper, but I know there’s a higher power. We can’t always help people but if someone comes to us downtrodden and upset and they leave our organization or our conversation better, that’s what it’s about.”
As she reflects on her early life experiences, Bullock said her determination led her to better times and places.
“Yeah, I didn’t have the best childhood, but because I was determined it turned out OK,” she said. “It could have been worse. There’s so many things I went through as a child and some of the drama. People didn’t go to counseling back then in the ’50s, you just dealt with it. No matter how old or young you are, follow your dreams.”
Bullock almost sees her role at First Impression as an obligation.
“Over the years of people supporting me and helping me and my kids,” she said. “I want to pay it forward. God has me here for a reason and a season.”