For decades, friends and strangers knocked on Clarissa Walker's door and rang her phone in the middle of the night, seeking shelter, food or homespun advice.

"She was the community's mom," said her daughter, Sara Rogers.

Walker, who mothered her south Minneapolis community for five decades as a social worker, activist and Sabathani Community Center leader, died March 7 of complications from dementia. She was 79.

"She was Sabathani; the community is missing a foundation," said Pamela Weems, a professional makeup artist who said she was able to buy a home because Walker straightened out Weems' taxes and got her years' worth of refunds she didn't know she had coming.

A Kansas City native who moved to Minneapolis in the mid-1950s, Walker transitioned from work as a nursing assistant to social work and community organizing.

She created the Sabathani Family Resource Center, which included two emergency houses, a food shelf and clothing shelf. She also brought Southside Neighborhood Housing Services, a national affordable housing program, to Minnesota in the 1970s. She helped south Minneapolis families plant community gardens on Sabathani property, and she helped many besides Weems prepare their taxes, securing millions of dollars in much-needed refunds.

A former welfare recipient, Walker didn't pass judgment or ask questions about how or why people ended up in predicaments, Sara Rogers said, adding that Walker was concerned with one thing: "How can I help?"

Georgia Marinkov-Omorean worked alongside Walker at Sabathani for decades, serving families in the Central and Bryant neighborhoods and beyond.

'Ability to touch so many'

Walker lived across the street from the community center, which is at 310 E. 38th St. Late nights, after fires or some other problem forced people from their homes, she'd dig out the keys to the center and find food and clothes for them.

"She had the ability to touch so many people," said Marinkov-Omorean, director of the Sabathani Senior Center.

In Walker's office in the basement of Sabathani, she hosted people who shaped policy and those affected by it. Her memorial service Monday drew more than 400 people from all walks of life, including politicians, panhandlers, preachers and professionals.

Weems told the crowd about her first meeting with Walker in that cluttered office. She recalled how Walker squinted at her W-2 forms, thumbed through a stack of papers and told her to come back in a few days.

"I was a nervous wreck," said Weems, who hadn't filed taxes in five years. "I didn't think she could see."

When Weems returned, the single mother of three walked out of Walker's office with forms for five years' worth of refunds, money she used for a down payment on a home.

Walker's youngest daughter, Neva Walker, followed in her mother's footsteps as a youth and housing organizer. She later served four terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

"I wasn't there to fill the shoes; I was just here to push her accomplishments further," said Neva Walker, the state's first black female lawmaker. "She could've been so many things, but [she] wanted to stay close to the people and work with them."

As her memory began to fail, Clarissa Walker lost track of time and badgered family about filing paperwork or completing tax returns for patrons from years before.

Finally, the woman who had for so long been a voice for the downtrodden lost her ability to speak. But she had left an example to follow.

"It wasn't just a job for her," Neva Walker said. "It was a way of living."

Walker is survived by six of her seven children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491