Back to her roots: Hill Section resident focuses on beautifying city, helping others

Mar. 19—Norma Jeffries spends her days dedicating her time to make Scranton beautiful and help as many people as she can.

The Hill Section resident is just making up for lost time.

Jeffries grew up in the city, but moved away after getting married to work and raise a family in Philadelphia and New Jersey. After her sons were grown and her husband, Charles, died, Jeffries moved back to Scranton five years ago. She wasted no time getting involved in numerous community initiatives and volunteer projects.

"I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't helping," Jeffries said. "It's not something I even really think about, it's just something that's inside of me. I've had such a wonderful life. How could I not spread those blessings?"

Jeffries grew up in Scranton as one of nine children to her parents, the late Doris and Solatha Simms. Her parents instilled in them a strong work ethic as her mom worked cleaning and doing laundry for women who lived in the city's Hill Section and her father worked in the service industry. In the wintertime, he would work at hotels downtown, including Hotel Casey and Hotel Jermyn, and then travel to work at places in the Poconos in the summertime.

Though they didn't have much money, Jeffries said "we never realized we were poor." They spent most of their time exploring the city and taking advantage of what Scranton had to offer, like going to the library to take out books, playing at various parks or going swimming at the local pools.

"We just had a lot of fun and such great memories," she said. "(Mom would) say, 'C'mon, let's go for a walk,' and all of us, with someone in the stroller, would walk all over. We did that for years."

Jeffries also credits her parents with instilling in her the importance of doing well in school. After she graduated from Scranton Technical High School, she attended Lackawanna Business School and got a job working for Bell of Pennsylvania in Scranton. There, she worked with a team to put together the yellow pages, which without computers, included laying out the pages by hand and lots of proofreading. Around this time as she worked up the ranks of the phone company, she met her future husband at a dance in the city. He was in Scranton for work, and the two hit it off and married shortly after.

Jeffries then relocated to Philadelphia and continued to work for Bell, which eventually evolved into Verizon. The company offered a great higher education program and Jeffries went back to school at Beaver College (now Arcadia University) and earned certification through Villanova University. She learned how to write programming and training software and worked in human resources systems for most of her career, teaching others how to train employees. After her first son, Roger, was born, the family relocated to New Jersey, where they then had a second son, Carter. Jeffries, who loved her job, was able to work remotely and raise her family. After their sons were grown, Jeffries and her husband had plans to travel and enjoy retirement, but those were cut short when he was diagnosed with cancer and later died.

"I was blessed to have the time with him that I did," she said, adding that she spent a few more years in New Jersey, before she was ready for something new.

After 36 years away, she moved back to Scranton's Hill Section, where she still had family. Jeffries was able to work remotely for Verizon up until she retired. When she arrived in Scranton, she noticed the city had changed a lot in the time she was away, and often got lost driving around. It didn't help that street signs were missing and the ones that existed were badly damaged or unreadable. Jeffries decided to attend a Scranton City Council meeting to voice this issue.

"It became my mission. I knew that if I was getting lost, I couldn't be the only one," she said, adding that this could be an issue for emergency vehicles as well. "It should be brought to the city's attention."

She presented council with a list of more than a dozen intersections in the Hill Section alone without proper signage. Council members agreed this was an issue and discussed it, but ultimately nothing was done. So, Jeffries continued to attend meetings to ask about the latest on the street signs. She was soon invited into the Department of Public Works where they showed her how they make the street signs. After five years, Mayor Paige Gebhardt Cognetti announced in April 2021 that the city would begin to replace more than 2,000 pairs of missing or faded street signs thanks to a state grant.

"That really showed me that if you want something done, you have to speak up," Jeffries said, adding that all of the damaged signs in her neighborhood have been replaced. "It's easy to complain and point fingers, but if something is really bothering you, you have to get up and do something. It's no use to just complain without action."

A nature-lover, Jeffries also became involved with revitalizing and repairing the David Wenzel Treehouse at Nay Aug Park so it could be open to the public. Furthering her love of the city's parks, Jeffries is secretary for Scranton Municipal Recreation Authority. She also helps out any way she can during her own time, including bringing plastic trash bags and a grabber to the park to pick up any trash she sees during her walks.

"I feel like it's the least I can do to beautify and keep the park looking presentable," she said. "We have a lot of wonderful places to enjoy here and I want to help where I can."

As part of the Shade Tree Commission, she and other members keep an eye on trees in the city that pose a threat, and have them cut down before a storm blows them over, they damage someone's property or worse. She also worked with Carol Deeley on organizing the inaugural Electric City Flower Show last August. The event took place at Nay Aug Park and featured gardening contests, plant sales, vendors and more. The event was a success with a great turnout, even though it was one of the hottest days of the year, she said. The second annual flower show is scheduled for June and should be even bigger and better.

In between, Jeffries gets involved in causes where she can help and be of service to others, like being a member of the Lackawanna County Branch of the NAACP. She also volunteers at Lackawanna County Prison, bringing in books and magazines to the inmates a few times a month. While COVID-19 restrictions halted that for a while, Jeffries also is involved with helping eligible inmates register to vote, and will get these individuals absentee ballots to fill out during elections.

"I've been so blessed in this life, between my wonderful family, my sons, my grandchildren, and I want to pay that kindness forward," she said. "My mother instilled in us to always do our best and I think that's always been part of why I do what I do."

While Jeffries had a wonderful childhood, as she grew older she eventually realized the family didn't have a lot of money to spend. This was a motivator for her and her siblings and something they still remember to this day as they used to babysit for families who lived in the Hill Section neighborhood that Jeffries and her sisters all live in now.

As she reflected on the way Scranton has changed from when she was growing up to now, she's seen many positives, including diversity in the city. Growing up, she remembered a time when a landlord point-blank told the family he wouldn't rent to them because of their skin color.

"I'll never forget the look on my mother's face that day," she said.

While Jeffries and her family weren't the only people of color in the city, there weren't as many families that looked like them. To see the diversity in not only the city's schools, but across the whole region is encouraging because being with different groups of people with different backgrounds is the best way to learn more about each other, she said.

"I love to see the photos of all the students playing sports together or being together because that's how it should be," she said. "That's something that's changed for the better."

When she's not involved in community activities, Jeffries loves to spend time with her family, including her grandsons, Jasper, 5, and Jayden, 2, who live out of town but not too far for visits with their grandmother. She looks forward to watching them grow and continues to do her part to ensure the world is a better place for them.

"One day maybe I'll be ready to slow down and sit back and relax, but that time's not here yet," she said. "I just have so much more I want to do and want to get done. I can't stop yet. There's too many people to help."

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