Choosing the proverbial road less traveled has indeed made all the difference to Ed Conway, 76, who has made giving back and paying forward a consistent theme in his life. The executive director of Lake-view Community Action Committee and voice of Road Atlanta and Road America was recently named "Atlanta’s Biggest Role Model" by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta. In addition to these honors, Conway was also recently selected as the executive director of the new Mercy Heart medical and dental clinic for the uninsured in Rockdale — a role that fits with his life’s work.
"Every time I try to do something selfless, I always get paid back," Conway said.
One memorable experience volunteering occurred in the 1960s when he was with the Atlanta Police Department. En route to church on Easter Sunday before his shift, he helped a beleaguered vestryman direct traffic. Afterwards the church offered him $50 to do this every week, a hefty amount at the time. He declined the money, but told them to put it towards his pledge. After traffic duty, he would teach a teen Sunday school class. That Christmas, his class chipped in gifting him a police pea coat, something he needed, but couldn’t afford. Shortly afterwards, while on motorcycle patrol he was hit by a car head on. His elbow went through the grill into the car’s radiator snapping his arm. "After two operations, both surgeons told me if I hadn’t been wearing that coat I would have lost my arm," he said.
Undergoing many career reinventions during his lifetime, Conway consistently chose what brought him inner peace over financial reward. He not only advocates for the Lakeview community, but he’s chosen to live in the mobile home neighborhood, made up of 4,000 mostly Latino residents. "It cements my credibility with folks," he said, "I love the vibrant atmosphere."
For the last 15 years, he’s run Lakeview’s HomeWork Club, a daily after-school assistance program for 37 third through fifth grade students with two bilingual paraprofessionals. It’s critical not only because of the language barrier for some parents, but also because of the distractions inherent in living in small quarters. Conway witnessed the effect the program had of kids staying in school and continuing their education – especially crucial now given the economy. Before, many would leave school to work in the construction industry with their fathers. He’s particularly proud of a brother and sister from the program’s first year, Juan Villanueva, who is now in the Marine Corps, and Lucia, who is in nursing school.
"Thanks to Ed’s leadership and dedication, these children are receiving the support they need to succeed in school and ultimately in life," said Claire Cline with United Way, which funds the program.
Despite a hip replacement gone awry that still has him in crutches, Conway can be found Tuesday evenings next door at Westminster campground helping coach Lakeview’s Lobos and Toros, soccer teams for 10-16-year-old boys. His wife Patricia washes their jerseys every week.
According to BBBSMA’s Miranda Bryen, over 250 nominations were submitted for the role model award, created "to find un-sung heroes in Atlanta who are helping to improve the lives of children." The Chamber’s Katy Zahradnik, who nominated Conway said, "Ed is an amazing individual with a passion for serving others like none I have ever seen."
His most recent venture will be to head Mercy Heart, the newest of two free health clinics in the county, which serves the uninsured in Rockdale County and was started by First Baptist of Conyers. Mercy Heart focuses on chronic conditions such as COPD, asthma, diabetes and heart disease, and dental work as well.
"We are very excited to have someone with Ed's stature working with us," said Mercy Heart board member Aimee Jones.
Conway will receive his award at BBBSMA’s Legacy Gala September 11 at The St. Regis Hotel.
Humbled and feeling undeserving, Conway said, "When I look back on my life, what I’ve accumulated is the impact I’ve made on others…I realize this award isn’t for me. I am accepting on behalf of all those people working in the trenches who have discovered that helping others is one of life’s most enriching experiences."