As a prominent leader of Aiken County's youth, Elizabeth Morris has set the example for many children on how to live and lead.   

"I am number seven of eight siblings," Morris said. "Family means everything to me. My parents did such a magnificent job being an example of what it means to love family. And not just love in words, but in deed by taking care of each other. That's why I have such a servant's heart."

In 2019, Morris was named Youth Adviser of the Year for her work with the Aiken County NAACP Youth Council. She also serves on the board of directors for Area Churches Together Serving (ACTS) and the Family Y.  

Born and raised in Saluda County, Morris grew up with two sisters and five brothers. She said her family was "poor," but her parents did such an excellent job of raising them that she never even noticed. 

"I lost my mother a year and a half ago," Morris said. "That's been really tough. This has probably been the toughest year and a half of my entire life because of the impact my mother had on me."

Morris' mother was the youngest of 15 siblings. Like many children raised by poor sharecropping families, she was taken out of school at a young age so she could help support herself and her family. She began babysitting a wealthy child who lived in a plantation house when she was just 8. 

"That's just the way it was at the time," Morris said.

Morris' father was taken out of school in the second grade to work. He learned a trade – cement finishing – and decided to use his labor skills to start his own business when he was 19.

"Can you imagine the kind of leap of faith it takes to do something like that?" Morris said. "Can you even imagine?"

Her parents met one weekend in downtown Johnston at the local dime store. 

Morris said her father's work ethic and her mother's strength in tragedy – such as the time she couldn't attend her 12-year-old son's funeral because she was in labor with Morris – set the example of the person she wanted to be. 

Today, Morris wears pearls in memory of her mother – a woman she says was a "real Southern belle."

"Even in her last few months of life as she was in bed ... she would make sure she had a little scarf on and a little bit of lipstick," Morris said. "Just because she was ill, it didn't mean it took her spirit."

The sacrifices her parents made taught Morris something that she teaches today's youth: education isn't an option, but a necessity, because of the sacrifices made by those who came before so people today could be educated.

"My parents instilled a strong work ethic," Morris said. "I was babysitting at 9 years old. We were taught very early how to be responsible ... some of the things that I see in our society now, I cringe a bit, only because I feel that we're doing a disservice to the kids. I don't think we shouldn't do things to help, but in my experience, we do more to hinder when we don't empower young people."

Despite her love of education, Morris didn't immediately begin college outside of high school. Instead, she enlisted to become a soldier in the U.S. Army National Guard . Two weeks after high school, she entered basic training in Fort Jackson.

"The first night, I cried, and I thought, what have I done?" Morris said. "And then these voices – my mentor, my mother, my father, my faith – said 'You can do this.' I did not shed one more tear, and I left there as one of their strongest female soldiers that came through that particular unit at that time."

She said the experiences she had in military service profoundly changed her.

"Of course I wanted to serve my country, but it came at a huge cost," Morris said. "Freedom isn't free."

Morris became a commissioned officer and trained soldiers in areas of leadership and skills relating to their military occupation specialty. She was honorably discharged years later.

Morris went on to enroll at Aiken Tech in 1988 to further her education. She said she had to take remediation courses because of the "disparity" in the state's public education system, including schools she attended. 

She transferred to USC Aiken, where she earned a Bachelor's degree in Sociology in 1991. She earned her masters in administration 10 years later.

Her first job out of college was with the Department of Corrections, in a room with 60 youthful offenders and armed with nothing more than a radio, a baton and a set of keys. She worked there for nine months before beginning her career with the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice as a probation officer.

In 2004, Morris went on to become the first minority Director of Community Programs at the DJJ.

Her experiences with the DJJ exposed her to what life was like for troubled youth in Aiken County. Morris said she saw many children suffering from trauma, and acting out because they didn't have the resources – or the support system – to heal it and become productive adults.

"What we uncovered – kids were having to be fathers, kids were selling drugs because they had to take care of their siblings," Morris said. "Kids were feeding their siblings, they didn't have lights in the home, they couldn't get in the home cause there were issues with the mothers. We found out so much."

Morris has moved on from the DJJ, and currently serves as the Director of Professional Standards and Development at Clemson University's Youth Learning Institute, where she also leads a variety of other programs that aim to support and empower youth.

She remains active in her community service to Aiken's youth, primarily through her efforts with the local NAACP branch's Youth Council. Morris said she sees the 60 children she works with through the program as her own, and says her goal is to teach them the importance of giving back and civic engagement. 

Having children also taught her new lessons about empowering youth. She has two sons and a daughter.

Morris' eldest son, Daniel, attended the S.C. Governor's School for Science and Mathematics. As one of the 3 percent of minority students on campus, she said he experienced feelings of isolation, even threats and bullying from some other students. 

"It empowered him to use his voice as a minority, young male who is extremely articulate and smart," Morris said. "Not just for himself, but for other students as well ... He said, 'Mom, I got it.' And I backed off."

Despite her service with numerous boards, committees and organizations, Morris said her goal has never changed: to teach the next generation empowerment, self-sufficiency and community service. 

"Leadership also means stepping back so others can step up," Morris said. "I tell myself, we're only as great as the next person."

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.