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A ‘lets make it work’ kind of grandmother

Minnesota native has spent retirement years helping orphans, restoring historic opera house

By Crystal Nutt

Sylvia Allen wants people to know that you’re never too old. To have fun, to work hard or to start something new.

Sylvia Allen poses for a photo with one of the orphans in Uganda she has helped through Sylvia’s Children, a nonprofit dedicated to give orphans a fighting chance with food, clean water, medical care, clothing, education and homes. Contributed photo

The 84-year-old Minnesota native began her life adventure in Edina with her parents and younger sister. She played piano, sang in the church choir and went door-to-door selling greeting cards as a teen. She also spent summer weekends at her great-grandfather’s cabin on Big Pine Lake, 13 miles south of Aitkin. Her memories include being surrounded by an extended family of entrepreneurs, love and music.

“We went up to the lake from Easter to Labor Day, every weekend,” said Sylvia. “And it was wonderful.”

Raised with a level of personal accountability and limitless expectation that was ahead of her time, Sylvia was a tenacious dreamer at a young age.

“I was never told I couldn’t do something,” recalled Sylvia. “I can remember when I was five and my dad asked what do you want to do. And I said, well I want to be president. He said of what. I said the United States. My mother said how are you going to do that. No one said, you can’t do it. It’s how are you going to do it.”

Sylvia graduated from Edina Morningside High School in 1954. And after shuffling between college and a few odd jobs, she later graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1960 with a bachelor of arts in speech and theatre arts and a minor in journalism. Following college graduation, Sylvia worked in the Minneapolis St. Paul radio and television scene and headed to New York in 1965 in search of gender equality, advancement opportunities and a higher earning potential.

“I produced a daily TV show and a daily live radio show, and I doubled the ratings in a year,” Sylvia said. “So I went to the executive producer and asked to a have a credit line that says produced by Sylvia. And he said you can’t have it. I said why? And he said because you’re a woman. I said no problem. I quit.”

That experience was the catalyst for Sylvia moving to the east coast, and she hasn’t looked back.

“I loved my job [in Minneapolis], but I didn’t love making $90 a week,” added Sylvia. “I just knew it was a dead end. So, I landed in New York without a job or a place to live but thought, ‘how bad could it be.’”

She was able to live on $5 a day and stayed at the Alma Mathews House, a girls’ guesthouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which cost $12 a day for a room and kitchen privileges.

“And then I went to an employment agency,” Sylvia said. “And the guy said I got some jobs but you’re overqualified. I said I’m under cashed. So I went out to work for Teletape Productions. It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. And I’ve just worked my way up.”

And work her way up she did. But true to Sylvia’s style, she didn’t take a traditional route. From 1965 to 1979 she had a series of jobs that gave her the experience and lessons necessary to launch her own public relations business.

“When I quit AT&T, my mother said you quit a safe job,” shared Sylvia. “I said the only safety, Mother, is within me. And I certainly have proven that.”

By 1986 she had four offices and 35 employees along the east coast, and by 1989 she realized employing others wasn’t a fit for her.

“In September 1989 I came back from a whole week of working at the Florida office,” remembers Sylvia. “I walked in the front door of the New Jersey office and the receptionist said thank god you’re here; the toilet is stuck. I said solve it. And that’s when I decided to go back to being a one-woman operation. Everybody that I use now is freelance or independent.”

Sylvia Allen. Contributed photo

But that wasn’t the only thing Sylvia was focusing on during those years. She was also an adjunct professor at New York University from 1986 to 2006, teaching sports events and marketing classes, as well as a class in the Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising called How to Ask for Money.

Sylvia married John Costa in 1969, and the couple had two children, Michele and Antony. The marriage ended in 1979.

“That’s when I said I’m going to have my own business,” Sylvia said. “I initially did technical documentation, and that way I could be available for the kids because I’m working from the house. My kids always say oh we remember the good old days where you typed all night. Yeah, well it depends on your point of view,” laughs Sylvia. “But I was able to make good money and take care of my kids.”

Sylvia’s business later transitioned to a public relations and events focus, where in addition to serving clients, she’s authored books and been honored with several awards and accolades. She married Tom Bridges, a scientist at Bell Labs, in 1981 and completed her masters within two years at Empire State College during the mid-1990s – receiving a degree in independent study in arts, culture and policy.

But it was in 2003 that she had a life-altering experience when a student in her NYU class invited her on a humanitarian trip to Africa with the nonprofit organization he had recently joined. They traveled to Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

“It’s when we got to Uganda that I had this overwhelming ‘oh my god, I’m supposed to be here’ feeling,” remembers Sylvia.

On the last day of her trip she was asked by Geofrey Kawuma, head of the Mbiriizi Primary School, to be the school’s grandmother. With 1,000 children in the school, of which 250 are orphans due to the AIDS crisis, Sylvia was honored to accept the responsibility.

“I said, ‘I can do that,’” Sylvia confirmed. “Not a warm, fuzzy grandmother but an accountable, let’s make it work kind of grandmother.”

Upon her return to the states – at age 66 – Sylvia founded Sylvia’s Children, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of her “grandchildren.” To give orphans a fighting chance with food, clean water, medical care, clothing, education and homes.

The first three years she raised a total of $31,000 and after that began getting other people involved and generating additional support.

“So in 2007, I took the first group with me,” said Sylvia. “And since then, I’ve done 30 trips to Uganda with anywhere from four to 14 people, and we go twice a year. And I’d just love to tell you that I had a plan. The plan I had was to make [the children] self-reliant.”

And while empowering the children to become self-reliant, Sylvia pulls from her Midwest roots and values, passing on a Minnesota work ethic, her entrepreneurial instincts, honesty, integrity, critical thinking, caring about others and being surrounded by loving people.

“I want to help them have an education and a better life,” added Sylvia. “We’re their family. I think [being together] makes a difference.”

To date, Sylvia’s organization has improved the lives of 2,000+ children. She currently supports 100 orphans in high school and 100 in post-secondary programs. Forty-nine orphans have graduated from college or technical school and are working in various professions as nurses, teachers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics and more.

Of course she doesn’t stop there. Remember her great-grandfather’s cabin south of Aitkin? She inherited it and regularly travels from her Holmdel, New Jersey home to Minnesota during the summer months.

“I get to straddle both worlds,” Sylvia said.

One of Sylvia’s projects in the last 10 years has been restoring the Butler building, a 24,000 square foot historic building and former opera house in downtown Aiktin. Contributed photo

To add to her list of projects and passions, in 2011 – at age 74 – Sylvia bought the Butler Building in downtown Aitkin, a 24,000 square foot historic building and former opera house built in 1903-1904. She invested $1 million before selling the building in 2020, traveling to Minnesota every weekend during that time. It’s now a cultural center with retail and event space.

“If you’re a speech and theater arts major, how quickly can you be suckered into buying something,” joked Sylvia. “So I bought it, renovated it and restored parts of it to its original historic integrity.”

Although she sold the Butler Building, she’s not slowing down. Sylvia remains active with her business and nonprofit. She also does two hours of ballet a week, along with two hours of pilates a week, and she loves to cook and care for plants.

That’s living life to its fullest.

“I had a guy the other day say, good god, can you ever tell you’re from Minnesota. I said ‘you bet,’” Sylvia joked.

So what’s her secret?

“I treat my life like a mosaic,” said Sylvia. “Here’s a little square I’ve got to work on. Focus, focus, focus and move on.”

Proving age is just a number, Sylvia continues to lead a life that’s full of passion, drive, wisdom and wit.

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