A yellow school bus turns the corner into Olmstead Homes housing project, and the driver opens the door for a woman leaning on a walker on the sidewalk.
“Was anybody bad?” Marietta Conner yells, peering into the bus.
As the kids file off, Conner, known as “Momma Doc” for as long as she can remember, spots a boy whose laces on his Nikes are trailing on the ground.
“Drop and give me three push-ups, and you know why!” Momma Doc yells. “Look at your shoes untied! Also, son, I’ve got some socks at home with your name on it,” because he’s not wearing any. “Come see me later.”
Conner, 62, is a neighborhood fixture in Olmstead Homes, known as a disciplinarian, a caretaker, a welcoming soul whose kitchen is always open. Nearly every Friday for 30 years, she has waited for afternoon school buses so she can lead the children to her doorstep where she passes out homemade chili, chicken, hot dogs or sweets to the kids - whatever she finds in her kitchen that afternoon.
Her nickname is a mix between her motherly warmth and her title as ordained minister, and it’s all she is called by.
“She’s real, real known up in here,” said neighbor Patricia Bennett. “She loves them kids. Mm-hmm. And they love her.”
Two Fridays before Christmas, Momma Doc decided to do something different than cooking at home for her kids. She made arrangements with Hot Foods of the CSRA on Broad Street to take a group to the restaurant for a sit-down meal.
After school, she called everyone to the middle parking lot in Olmstead. The children ran from tidy brick houses and stopped where Conner was waiting with her walker and a plan.
She lined 11 children up two-by-two and made them stand like soldiers. Her rules were simple: no yelling, no swearing, no walking out of formation, and when they arrive, boys must open the door for the girls.
“I’m teaching you how to be young men and treat the young ladies, OK?” Conner said. “Can I get an ‘Amen’? I said can I get an ‘Amen’?!”
The children, mostly Garrett Elementary School pupils, listened excitedly.
With the voice of a drill sergeant, Conner started the line.
“Annnnnnnnd your left, left, left right left,” she yelled.
The children stomped their feet, marching and carefully following Conner’s lead as she pushed her walker up Wood Street and turned left on Clark Street.
Residents at on their porches stared at the spectacle as the children marched past homes on the 15-minute walk to the restaurant, singing songs Conner made up as she went along.
“It was hard to keep up and I was excited, but I was thinking she was going to make me do push-ups,” said Deiontay York, 9.
Halfway to the restaurant, when the kids’ tempo got out of sync, Conner stopped the group with a deep, long command.
“OK, girls, give me jumping jacks, and guys, give me push-ups!”
Conner gave the orders as discipline for sloppy marching, but later said she secretly does it to make the children feel good.
“Oh, they want me to tell them to do the push-ups,” she insists. “They like the attention. Them boys know to have their shoes tied and to listen, but they like when I call them out. It makes them feel special.”
When the line arrives at the restaurant, Conner sits the group around tables and barks orders for proper manners. For dinner, the kids get hot dogs, juice and potato chips, all from Momma Doc’s dime and heart.
Conner was born in Cleveland and came to Augusta around 1980 for Army basic training.
After a year of service and an honorable discharge, Conner decided to stay in Augusta because the weather was easy on her bones.
She spent her years driving city buses, working at a butcher shop and cooking for restaurants here and there.
She learned as a youngster to cook from her mother, a seamstress and singer. At age 8, she made her first cake and soon moved on to more complicated meats and dressings.
Growing up, she saw how food affects people. It’s a conversation piece, a comfort, she said. There’s no better feeling than bringing someone a home-cooked meal made in your own kitchen.
When she moved to Olmstead in 1982, Conner started her tradition of passing out food to the kids and elderly.
She lives alone and never had kids of her own, so the community has become her family. It’s not just children she feeds, but senior citizens living in Olmstead and across town.
She used to shuttle meals by stacking plates in her car’s back seat. But since a wreck in 2008, she has had to rely on her scooter or friends to drive her.
On Thanksgiving, Conner woke up around 7 a.m. to cook a 23-pound turkey, string beans, potatoes, carrots, cranberry sauce and sweet potato pie.
Neighbor Jerry Douglas, who is on dialysis and can’t get around the kitchen to cook, was delivered a steaming plate of Thanksgiving food for him and his two sons.
“She look out for everybody in the neighborhood,” Douglas said. “Oh man, I don’t know where she learned, but she’s like a gourmet cook. I don’t eat pasta salad, but I eat hers. She’s good.”
After taking care of her neighbors on Thanksgiving, Conner fixed herself a plate of food and said a prayer alone over a table in her kitchen. She did the same on Christmas, passing out plates of curry chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, corn bread and lemonade. When she finds time after these meal distributions, she curls up in her living room and spends the evening planning her next meal.
“It’s about other people,” she said. “That’s why I do this. It’s not about me, it’s taking care of Jesus’ people.”