Wake County

Life Stories: Psychologist Alma Trotter traveled far, cared for many

Alma Trotter's graduation from UC-Berkeley with a Ph.D. in psychology.
Alma Trotter's graduation from UC-Berkeley with a Ph.D. in psychology.

When Alma Trotter first met Gloria Sloan, Sloan was unloading her three children from the car in her new neighborhood in Oakland, Calif. Trotter immediately offered to hold the youngest, a 3-week-old girl. In that moment in 1987, Sloan, a newly separated single mother, knew Trotter was someone she could trust.

“There was just something about her. When you meet someone and you know they’re genuine, you don’t have to ask a lot of questions. You know in your heart,” Sloan said.

It didn’t take long for Sloan to ask Trotter, who lived next door, whether she could babysit. As Sloan was a nurse working all-night shifts – sometimes pulling doubles – it was no small task. When Trotter agreed, she was working full time by day as a clinical psychologist. She went so far as to buy a crib to keep Sloan’s daughter in her own home.

“She was just a wonderful person. She was the type of friend that I needed,” Sloan said.

This arrangement went on another three years, and Sloan’s children considered Trotter a member of their family.

Though she did not have her own children, Trotter spent her life working with – and taking care of – children and families. During a career as a clinical psychologist, her work spanned the public schools of Washington, D.C.; the underprivileged minority population of the Bay Area; and military families in North Carolina.

Trotter died this summer after a battle with cancer. In tribute to her lifetime of helping others – and traveling around the world – friends from faraway lands were willing to take a red-eye flight from Africa to make it to her funeral service.

An example to many

It was obvious from the beginning that Trotter was smart.

“She was the studious one,” said her brother, Claude Trotter of Raleigh. “She would be at the library; she would be reading.”

When Trotter graduated from J.W. Ligon High School in 1960, the Raleigh public school system was still very much segregated – but that did not hold her back.

“We may not have had the first-rate books or facilities, but we were not cheated at all in terms of encouragement,” her brother said. Both of their parents had college educations as well.

Two master’s degrees and a doctorate later, family members say, Trotter made sure her career served as an example to anyone who felt education might be an unobtainable goal.

Elaine Alvarez was Trotter’s supervisor when she earned a prestigious position as an intern at Pacific Psychotherapy Associates in San Francisco. The group sought to bring quality mental health care to low-income African-Americans. Trotter was particularly good at making children feel comfortable, and it made her an effective psychologist.

“A lot of adults lose the capacity for play. She had the capacity of play, to be with the child at the child’s own level,” Alvarez said.

With her brother’s children, Trotter served as not only example of what hard work and education can achieve but also a constant reminder to them that the world was a wide, open place.

“She would always push them. And she would push other kids to get out and to learn and to use your time wisely,” Claude Trotter said.

Living out her beliefs

Alma Trotter was the daughter of a Baptist minister but as an adult practiced Buddhism. She traveled to China and Africa, putting into action her belief that life was about experiences.

Her life was also about relationships. After working in private practice in California for decades, she moved back to North Carolina in 2006 to be closer to her family. She then worked as an independent contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense, offering counsel to veterans and their families returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“When you’re psychologically damaged, you’re not expecting yourself to do as well as you could,” Alvarez said. “That’s the point of doing psychological intervention – helping them to do their very best.”

That’s what Trotter’s life was about.

“She was very mindful of opening up experiences for people,” Alvarez said. “That was the focus of her life, really.”