From homelessness to hope: Ithaca leader comes full circle

Nancy Doolittle
Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) and a member of the Tompkins County legislature, shared her life’s struggles at Soup & Hope Feb. 16.


The third speaker in the 2017 Soup and Hope series now leads the organization that helped her when she found herself briefly homeless in Ithaca 26 years ago.

During her talk Feb. 16 in Sage Chapel, Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) and a member of the Tompkins County legislature, shared her life’s struggles and paid tribute to those who helped her through them. The talk was preceded by introductions by Mayor of Ithaca Svante Myrick ’09 and McBean-Clairborne’s husband and former Common Council member, J.R. Clairborne, current advocacy coordinator of Loaves and Fishes of Tompkins County.

Originally from Guyana, McBean-Clairborne grew up in the Caribbean but moved to New York in 1989 to live with her mother. In 1990 she landed an elementary school teaching job in Syracuse, which she held for one year before leaving to work at Ithaca High School.

Shortly after moving to Ithaca, McBean-Clairborne was displaced from her home. For about two weeks she lived in an old Monte Carlo car her brother had given her, washing up at GIAC some mornings before going to work. By happenstance, she heard that a woman, Diann Sams, was looking for someone to live in her house and help care for her. McBean-Clairborne met Sams and her two sons and was offered a room in Sam’s home. “She took me in and became my mother and I became her daughter … and my life turned around.” McBean-Clairborne said. Sams and her sons gave her “hope that there are good people and good opportunities in this world.”

Sams was well-known in Ithaca. She helped develop GIAC, was the first African-American woman to serve on Ithaca’s Common Council and the first African American to lead Ithaca when she served as the city’s acting mayor. Years later, the Diann Sams Annual African American History Month Recognition Award, which “honors outstanding persons who possess leadership, courage against unspeakable odds and vision,” was created in Sams’ honor. Sams encouraged McBean-Clairborne to be a foster mother and become involved in the city’s politics.

Years later, after budget cutbacks eliminated her job, McBean-Clairborne was again unemployed and again a friend gave her hope. Four months pregnant and single, she went to the Department of Social Services to apply for food stamps. Her interview left her feeling she was of no value, but she went home, gathered all her degree certificates and transcripts, took them back to the social worker’s office, and showed them to her, saying, “I am not a lowlife …. I just happened to fall into this place at this time.”

Though she did not get any help from that worker at the time, her best friend Gale “Trim” Trimble – who worked at GIAC – made sure McBean-Clairborne always had food to eat. McBean-Clairborne was seven months pregnant before she finally received social services’ assistance.

In the years following, McBean-Clairborne met her husband and worked in a variety of activist, political and mediator roles. She became Tompkins County legislator, GIAC deputy director and acting director before assuming her current director role.

“Even with all the obstacles, I am standing before you as an accomplished woman … as a mother of three beautiful children … as a wife…. I stand here proud to head an organization that gives back to this community, who is proud to head an organization that gave me hope, that gave me soup,” she said. “Think of all the ways that you bring hope or can bring hope to someone, that you can help change somebody’s life for good.”