Champion for Children: Decatur woman follows passion to impact city’s youth

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

A chance encounter with Bruce Jones, then director of Decatur Youth Services, at Walmart 18 years ago opened the door for Kurtistyne White to pursue what would become her calling.

“My background is in military. I only thought about working with kids after I had my sons and wanted to spend more time with them,” said White, 56. “When I started working with kids, I asked God to give me the same passion he has for children. He did. This is a God-given passion.”

That passion has impacted hundreds of children in Decatur.

During the past 18 years, White has overseen the Girls-to-Women program, directed Camp Safe Haven, organized Black History Month and back-to-school events, coached a recreational basketball team, co-coordinated “The Wiz” musical, secured donations for youths to see the “Black Panther” movie, developed a percussion ensemble, and led a field trip to the National African-American Music Museum in Nashville.

“DYS has opened up doors for me to do what I think I’m gifted to do. Our director Brandon Watkins’ motto is ‘We’re all in.’ I’ve taken that to heart and have tried to impact the youth and community as much as possible,” White said.

During her time with Decatur Youth Services, White has reached hundreds of children.

Growing up in the rural outskirts of Phenix City, White never imagined a future working with children. After graduating from high school, she enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After seven years in the service, with stints at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence, Indiana; Fort Hood, Texas; and Fort Stewart, Georgia; White, pregnant with her second child and married to a fellow Army soldier, returned to civilian life.

With children in tow, White followed her then-husband to bases around the country. Her goal — be the best mom possible.

“My mom made me who I am today. Mom was our rock and did whatever she needed to do so we could just be kids,” White said. “That’s what I wanted to do for my kids.”

White trained at a police academy and worked as a corrections officer at a maximum security prison for women. When her husband received an honorable discharge from the military, the family settled in Decatur — the home of his parents — where White found a job in retail. After a divorce, White, needing to boost her income, became a TSA agent at Huntsville International Airport. But the 3 a.m. to noon shift interfered with her top priority — her children.

“I wanted to be able to participate in my sons’ activities,” White said. “To do that, I needed a job with different hours.”

She found that job as a paraprofessional with Decatur City Schools 19 years ago.

“I’m currently at Austin Junior High School with a student I have been with since third grade. I tell him we are going to graduate together in 2026. He is like family to me,” White said.

To supplement her income, White searched for a part-time job that wouldn’t take time away from her children. That’s when she saw Jones at Walmart.

“He didn’t know me, but when I saw him, I knew I had to shoot my shot,” White said. “The last 18 years have been such a blessing.”

Among the programs she is involved with, White named Girls Connected for a Cause, or GC4C, as the most rewarding.

“It is a civic engagement program for girls I started several years ago. It’s about teaching them they can have a voice and don’t have to wait until they are adults to make change in their community,” White said.

Through the program, the girls participated in the remembrance walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. They attended women’s history events in Decatur and Huntsville, where they met Gov. Kay Ivey. And they arranged a voter registration drive in 2020.

“Mrs. White leads our group to do different things to impact the community, like doing the voter registration drive. She has also given us the opportunity to attend events, like Juneteenth and the City Council meeting,” said 14-year-old Vega Zaman, who recited the Emancipation Proclamation during a Juneteenth event this year.

Watching Zaman at the Juneteenth celebration gave White a sense of pride and fulfillment.

“They are just blooming. They can achieve whatever they want to achieve,” White said.

Humble and gracious, White deflected the success of the programs to the community.

“There hasn’t been anyone in the community to say, ‘No,’ when we needed help,” White said. “There have been so many people that have poured into these programs.”

Among them are Carol Puckett, who directed Decatur Youth Services’ “The Wiz,” Monte Johnson’s New Way Out organization and Jerraud Powers’ Team Freeze.

Her reach extends beyond DYS. During the pandemic, White organized outdoor Vacation Bible School experiences for children. And, recently, she spearheaded the creation of nine Village Libraries.

Placed around Decatur, the cases contain books children can borrow for free.

“The mission is to try to set the libraries in areas where children may not have immediate access to books,” said White, who erected the first one at Decatur Place a year ago in honor of her mother. “She is the one who introduced me to books. She was a very avid reader.”

The newest Village Library is in memory of MJ Moultry Jr., the Decatur 4-year-old shot and killed in Chicago last year.

“It is at Julian Harris Elementary, where he would have attended school,” White said.

With each passing year, White, the mother of three sons and grandmother of eight, becomes more involved in the community.

“I am one of the lucky ones. I don’t see what I do as work. This is my calling and I love it,” White said.