Marilyn Hillian Rivers, 86, of Philadelphia, retired executive director of the Women’s Christian Alliance, former coordinator of the Philadelphia School District’s center for Comprehensive Services for School-Age Parents, and onetime president of the board of trustees of the Philadelphia YWCA, died Wednesday, July 6, of complications from dementia at the Terrace at Chestnut Hill senior community center.
Dedicated to serving children, families, and her community at large, Mrs. Rivers served with the Women’s Christian Alliance in the 1990s and 2000s and helped the nonprofit expand its programs of foster care, child welfare, education, and social services to include after school day-care centers and larger headquarters. In 1998, the WCA founded the Alliance for Progress Charter School on Cecil B. Moore Avenue for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
She also organized fund-raisers for WCA that attracted national celebrities and entertainers such as Ruby Dee and Patti LaBelle, and collaborated closely over the years with Mayors W. Wilson Goode, Ed Rendell, and John F. Street on many projects.
In the 1980s, she worked for the School District’s North Philadelphia center for teenage parents. Established in 1971, the Comprehensive Services for School-Age Parents program was staffed by teachers, social workers, and child-care experts, and provided continuing education and social services every school year for hundreds of mothers still in high school.
In addition to offering the same classes students had at their high schools, the center provided job-readiness training, career planning, diploma preparation, special counseling, group sessions in parenting and human sexuality, a day-care center, and a prenatal clinic. Mrs. Rivers told the Daily News in 1986 that the clinic was especially important because “teens who are pregnant tend to have more health problems themselves, and their children tend to have more health problems.”
“Some people have a natural ability to take care of people, and my mother was one of them,” her son, Bryan, said.
As trustee of the YWCA in the 1980s, she worked with Mayor Goode and others as the organization faced financial difficulties and branch closures and navigated controversial changes. In the 1970s, she served as a social work manager in East Falls, regional director for the YWCA, and earned a master’s degree in social work at Bryn Mawr College.
“She had a warmness in her heart that was felt when she entered the room,” her son said. “The warmth would lift your spirit and change the air.”
Mrs. Rivers won awards for her work from the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania and other groups, and sat on boards at Albert Einstein Medical Center, the Tioga United Methodist Church, now the Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church, and other organizations.
“She was awesome,” a friend wrote in an online tribute. “Her smile, speech, and just her mannerisms radiated professionalism and being a woman of God.”
Born Aug. 20, 1935, in Chesterfield, S.C., Marilyn Hillian earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1956 from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. She met Edgar Boykin Rivers in college, and they married in 1956.
The couple lived in Texas and Zweibrücken, Germany, while he was in the Army. After his discharge, they moved to Philadelphia, where he had family, in 1958, lived in Mount Airy, and had sons Bryan and Paul. Her husband and son Paul died earlier.
Ever the organizer, Mrs. Rivers liked to coordinate family reunions and holiday gatherings. She had an infectious smile, was direct and motivational, and active with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in Philadelphia and Drucilla AME Zion Church in Chesterfield.
“She was the glue that held us together,” her son said. “Family and friends were all as one. She was someone I want to emulate and walk in her footsteps.”
In addition to her son, Mrs. Rivers is survived by four grandchildren, one great-grandson, five sisters, and other relatives. Two brothers died earlier.
Services were Friday, July 15, in Philadelphia, and Friday, July 22, in Chesterfield.
Donations in her name may be made to the Alliance of Progress Charter School, 1722 Cecil B. Moore Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19121.