Maggie Lewis | Feature, Jan. 2012

Natural Leader

Maggie Lewis adds to her resume of public service as the first female president of the Indianapolis City-County Council

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Feature

When Maggie Lewis speaks, there’s always a smile in her voice. She’s the kind of woman who not only notices all the blessings in her life, but celebrates them every day.

At a young age, Lewis discovered a passion for helping others. It’s something to which she’s dedicated her life, both personally and professionally.

As executive director of the Dove Recovery House for Women, Lewis helps women with histories of drug addiction start on the road to recovery.

Now, she has an opportunity to make an even bigger impact as the newly elected president of the Indianapolis-Marion County Council. Lewis is the first woman to hold the position since the Marion County and Indianapolis city governments merged in 1970.

Some might be a little overwhelmed by all the irons she has in the fire. But she’s the kind of woman who flows from one moment to the next, smiling and confident in how she can best accomplish all that she is passionate about.

A large heart
Lewis spent most of her childhood growing up in Columbus, Ind. As the first-born child with two younger brothers, she was involved with the usual little girl activities –– dance classes, Girl Scouts and cheerleading.

But she also recalls an awareness from a very young age that, whatever career path she chose in life, it absolutely had to include helping others. In fact, Lewis acquired that belief as a high school student, when she went to work after school as a nurse’s aide.

After graduating from Columbus East High School, Lewis made one of several “first” steps in a life that would naturally guide her toward many leadership roles and even more opportunities to advocate for others. She became the first person in her family to attend college. She ventured to Indiana State University in Terre Haute to study health education and then remained on campus to earn a master’s degree in public administration organization.

Lewis met her best friend, Tori Harvey, on campus at Indiana State when she approached Harvey to talk about her sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho.

“Maggie invited me to attend one of the sorority functions, and we just clicked,” says Harvey, who now resides in Indianapolis and works as a job coach for Easter Seals Crossroads.

What she immediately noticed about Lewis was her huge, giving heart, Harvey says.

“Maggie has this awareness about others and this heart for people,” Harvey says. “She wants to do something that’s bigger than herself.”

Harvey recalls how Lewis gathered a group of middle school-aged girls in Terre Haute, taught them some dance moves, formed a dance troupe and began scheduling community performances. It was a fun and very positive way to make an impact with the youth. Lewis not only taught the younger girls to dance, she provided them with opportunities to feel special and develop self-esteem by sharing their talents with the public.

While juggling her schoolwork, her commitments to her sorority sisters and her group of young dancers, Lewis also organized beauty pageants for young women at the local community center and got involved with the Minority Health Coalition.

“She did things we didn’t usually see in Terre Haute,” Harvey says. She admires the strong commitment Lewis feels toward her family, especially her mother.

“She is definitely a mama’s girl. She loves her mom to death. And sometimes she will call me and say, ‘I’m gonna run home real quick today and see my mom. I just need a hug from her,’” Harvey says.

Lewis makes the drive from Indianapolis to Columbus without a worry about the time required. No distance is too far on the days she feels a need to spend some time with her mom.

It’s no surprise that this rather shy college student was drawn to another heart that was similarly filled with love for other human beings. Along with finding a best friend on campus, Lewis also met her husband, LeRoy Lewis III.

“I’d love to say it was love at first sight,” she says with a laugh. “But he just kind of grew on me. My husband has a friendly personality. He can speak to a stranger. I’m not like that. And I admire that about him.”

She and her husband are both very community minded. He does a lot of civic work as well. They also are both very family oriented. Seven years ago, during an extremely crowded Christmas Eve dinner with his family and hers sandwiched snugly around her dining room table, LeRoy popped the question in front of everyone.

“It was the best,” Lewis says of the proposal.

Her family is not only close, it’s huge, with 21 children born to her great-grandmother. Her husband’s family is also very close. Of course it was a perfect plan to share that special moment, surrounded by everyone they love.

Experiencing motherhood

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Maggie met her husband, LeRoy Lewis III, at Indiana State University. They are parents to LeRoy Lewis IV, who is nicknamed Popsicle after Dad’s favorite treat.

After college, Harvey and Lewis spent a lot more time together than they do now. In fact, they resided in the same Indianapolis apartment building. Harvey married first and, when she became pregnant with her first son, now 12, that best-friend kind of love grew even deeper as Lewis took an abiding interest in the arrival of her best friend’s first child.

“Maggie went to all the doctor’s appointments with me,” Harvey says. “She was right there beside my husband during labor and delivery too.”

Five years ago, Lewis also became a mother. It is an experience that has brought another entirely new and wonderful definition to her marriage and her life in general.

“We had a great little boy come into our lives. He is LeRoy Lewis IV. And he just dominates our world,” Lewis says. “I love being his mom. We have an awesome relationship.”

Though the two women don’t see each other nearly as often as they would like, they usually chat every day on the phone, and their families make a commitment to celebrate several holidays together throughout the year.

“As far as Maggie and I are concerned, we are all family,” Harvey says.

Since Harvey now has a second son who is 4 years old, he and Lewis’ little boy are great playmates. She and Lewis trade off occasional weekends for their sons to play together and spend overnights.

“Our friendship is just one of those relationships that, if she needs me or I need Maggie, we are there for each other,” Harvey says.

Who Lewis is –– as a daughter, wife, mother and best friend –– keeps her grounded and close to family roots. Those values thread through the rest of Lewis’ life, defining her as one of the Circle City’s most vibrant advocates.

A leader emerges
FeatureLewis has served as the executive director of Dove Recovery House near downtown Indianapolis for nearly two years. As a community-based transitional program for women recovering from substance abuse, this nonprofit program offers new beginnings to countless women of all ages.

Founded in 2000 by Trudy Brown, the organization’s two-story, residential setting is home to frequent magical moments. Six devoted staff members provide assistance for 24 female residents. Educational and occupational skills are available to the women, along with spiritual growth opportunities. All of it is offered in a cozy, safe setting for healing.

Many social service programs primarily target men who are homeless and struggling with addiction issues. But few programs are geared entirely toward females who face these same struggles, Lewis says.

“As women, we are complex creatures. Women are the caregivers. We often put everybody else’s needs in front of our own. So at Dove House, we ask the women to be still and focus on themselves.”

Positive moments spent with their families are also important to women in recovery, Lewis says. That is why, at any given moment, children of all ages can be seen playing in various rooms in the home. Spending time with one’s children is important for all women’s hearts. So Lewis makes sure the women at Dove House always have quality time with their little ones. She is completely dedicated to helping the women heal and feel empowered and worthy through recovery.

“I want them to understand –– and I say it to them often –– that substance abuse does not define them. It may be a hiccup along the way, but they were created to do great things,” she says. “And I really do believe that.”

Great moments of growth frequently occur for women surrounded by other women who cheer them on, believe in them and guide them. When they know they are safe and that criticism and victimization are part of the past, they tend to bloom.

With no males in the mix, women in recovery at Dove House don’t get off track. They don’t worry about relationships with men. Instead, they have the chance to rise up and realize –– many for the first times in their lives –– that they are talented and capable and that a life of sobriety can offer them many opportunities they may have initially believed impossible.

“I really am a blessed woman,” Lewis says. “Being able to be here at Dove House is good for my soul. I would be here whether I got paid or not. I love my work here.”

In addition to serving as an usher at Mount Paran Baptist Church and a longtime volunteer with the Lafayette Square Area Coalition, a nonprofit organization that focuses on community diversity and bringing new business to the northwest side of the city, Lewis also serves as a board member for the Lupus Foundation.

She recently celebrated another one of those firsts in her life, leading the Indianapolis City-County Council as its first female president. She previously served as councilor for the 7th district, representing portions of Wayne and Pike townships on the west and northwest sides of the city, respectively.

State Rep. John Bartlett was not at all surprised by Lewis’ appointment as president.

“Councilor Lewis is very smart,” says Bartlett, who has known her for more than five years. “She understands politics. I believe she has the potential to be the first female African-American governor of the great state of Indiana. I see her as a shining star. She’s the brightest thing I have seen in a long time.”

She has been fascinated by politics all of her life and involved in the political process for at least the last eight years, Lewis says. During the last several years, she has helped with various campaigns. And she feels strongly that all Americans should actively participate in the political process of electing officials who best represent their needs.

“I have always really enjoyed the constituent services, meeting the people in the community. We all want the same things. We have so much in common though we do know differences too,” she says.

When Lewis assumes the role this month, she’ll be immediately faced with two hot-button issues.

One is the 10-year, $1.3 billion mass transit plan that includes a heavier emphasis on local and express bus routes, bus rapid transit lines and a rail line from Noblesville to Union Station.

Lewis is one of the key players in making the plan a reality. Lewis has said she would support the right plan and will be influential in garnering support from the public and fellow Democrats.

Another is the smoking ban that was struck down last month. Lewis has said she believes the city is ready for a “real clean-air policy” and that she is ready to work closely with Mayor Ballard to tackle the issue.

Many people encouraged her to seek the council leadership role, Lewis says. And though she is grateful for their support for her abilities and for the victory, the news is still sinking in.

“I’m still wrapping my brain around being the first female president of the council. You don’t set out to be the first. I am very humbled. I stand on the shoulders of some great women.”

Obviously, Lewis doesn’t run from an opportunity to lead and grow. Though she rarely plans to be front and center, she doesn’t back down when she finds herself in that position. And that is exactly why she agreed four years ago to organize the first multicultural parade, a vision shared with Lewis by Mary Clark, president of the Lafayette Square Area Coalition.

Lewis confessed to Clark that she had never organized a parade and did not feel completely confident about her abilities to make such a tall task a successful reality. But what Lewis did feel confident about was Clark’s vision. She fell in love with Clark’s purpose for the parade and the message it would send to the community.

Clark recognized that Lewis had just the right amount of excitement and respect to see the mission through. As Lewis got busy, great things resulted. When it was all said and done, she successfully brought several cultures together to celebrate the community they share. On the designated day, a winding column of several hundred ingredients in America’s melting pot presented the first multicultural parade in the Lafayette Square area.

“It is such a beautiful parade,” Lewis says of the event that continues to take place every August. “All the different nationalities and music and cultures. It takes time to grow a parade, and I love it because it showcases our society.”

Lewis also made a commitment to work as a member of the steering committee for an anti-crime program called the Eagledale-Lafayette Square Area Weed and Seed.

She helped found the Pike Township Combat Committee, which provides free weekend retreats to female service members returning from overseas. And she remains active with her sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho.

Time for me
FeatureLewis begins her day at 4 a.m. with a workout, some gospel music and some quiet time to read through email.

“I have two hours of quiet. It’s time for me,” she says. “And I love gospel music. It’s my inspiration for the day.”

By 6 a.m., Lewis happily anticipates the moment her husband and son bounce out of bed, ready to start their days. LeRoy Lewis IV is nicknamed Popsicle, after his dad’s favorite snack.

Each weekday morning, she insists on driving her son to school.

“Dad knows that is something Mommy enjoys doing,” Lewis says. “Sometimes we work on ABCs or just chit-chat. But I just have to do that. I have to take my baby to school.”

After spending a full day at Dove House and likely attending a meeting for one volunteer effort or another, Lewis’ day usually ends soon after her little guy snuggles into his pajamas.

“I’m not the nicest person after 9 p.m.,” she says with a laugh.

There may be many responsibilities in her life, but Lewis makes a point of saying that her first priority is her son. She spent the first four months of his life at home, getting to know him and growing into a mother. In the last five years of parenthood, she still appreciates how having a child has so sweetly impacted her life.

“My son reminds me to just stop everything and enjoy living,” Lewis says. “He’s made me really appreciate life and be in the moment. He reminds me that love is unconditional.”

She and her husband have structured both of their extended families around their son exactly like the families they were both raised in –– with relationships that so beautifully insulated each of them as they grew into adulthood. Sunday church services are often followed by large Sunday dinners. Those meals are often crowded affairs with lots of relatives and favorite foods, jokes, laughter and togetherness.

When she isn’t caught up in a wave of family time, off to a meeting or quietly enjoying time with her husband and child, Lewis says she loves to sing and dance.

“And I also love the beach. I love lying on the sand.”

Though she tries extra hard to be what she expects of herself, Lewis admits that she does have a couple of high-calorie vices that could one day become a concern, especially should she ever deduct that 4 a.m. workout from her daily schedule.

“I just love fried chicken,” she giggles. “I can eat fried chicken every day. I drive my family crazy with it. And I love cashews. It sure goes against my working out all the time, but that’s it. I love fried chicken and cashews.”

Devoting her life to the needs of the community and giving all people a voice is one of Lewis’ life missions.

“It’s important that you tell your story,” she says. “You know it best. Don’t allow someone else to tell your story.”


Read LeRoy’s thoughts on his mom in the Indianapolis Star. He says, she’s a good cook and a good dancer who makes funny faces, gives lots of hugs and kisses and helps him with his homework.

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