Dani Biggs: Tapping into the Arts to Tell People’s Stories at NYC’s Public Theater

By Meagan Harkins

Seated in a pew at her childhood Baptist church in Central, N.J., Danielle Biggs gazed in wonder at the procession of the dance ministry, admiring the performers dressed in the flowing white skirts iconic to liturgical dance. “I was just mesmerized and entranced in that moment,” recalled Biggs, who was two years old at the time. She went home and spent that afternoon twirling and dancing around the house. Her parents soon signed her up for studio dance classes and for the church’s dance ministry, and Biggs has danced ever since.

Biggs, a 2015 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Elon University  and currently the membership manager at New York City’s famed Public Theater, hails from a family steeped in music and the arts. Her father, Terence, plays the guitar and jammed in a band as a young adult. Her mother, Sharon, was a singer. Her brother performed in his high school and college marching band. Even her uncle is a dancer. “Creativity allows us to bond,” Biggs said. “All of us having that connecting point is really cool and magical. Our relationship is even further strengthened because of that lived and shared experience.”

At age three, Biggs enrolled in Jo-Ann’s Dance Studio in South Plainfield, N.J. From then on, she spent her evenings there or with her church’s dance ministry. In high school, she joined her school’s dance team and began competitive dance, spending weekends at competitions with All Star Dance Academy (now Artists in Motion). “It was a lot,” she said. “I had been balancing extracurriculars and school since kindergarten.”

Looking back on her dance studio days, Biggs now recognizes that, despite her love for dance, the environment had the potential to be toxic to a young person’s body image. She sometimes heard traumatizing comments about herself as far back as the age of eight. But she has learned to celebrate the fact that each and every dancer looks different—and stands out—even in identical costumes. “I always found it weird that the tights and jazz shoes didn’t match my skin color,” Biggs said. “But you should go that extra mile to stand out and be yourself. If that means you look different in a costume, you look exactly how you’re supposed to look.”

Dani Biggs decided to pursue her passion for dancing as a major at Elon University.

A New Stage
As a high school student, Biggs saw her “big sister” in dance ministry having the time of her life attending Elon University. Biggs travelled to North Carolina to tour the campus and fell in love with Elon’s botanical garden. “I could talk to a wall about how great Elon is,” noted Biggs, who now serves on Elon’s alumni board.

As a freshman at Elon, Biggs chose to major in marketing. After focusing on her studies—but desperately missing the life of a dancer—during the fall semester, she signed up for an improvisation dance class as an elective in the spring. Just weeks into class, the professor, who became a mentor, signed Biggs up to audition for Elon’s dance program.

“I went through the normal arc of trying to pick a career that made sense, becoming a dance performance and choreography and arts administration major,” she said. “Pick a major you’re passionate about, otherwise life is like hell. I think you really viscerally feel, when you are not in the right program, that something is wrong. When something is wrong, it feels like your guard is always up or like you’re not fully able to relax or settle into yourself or into a routine. That was a pro tip—to focus on something that brings me joy.”

From a lifetime of dance, Biggs has developed the confidence to make mistakes. Once, when she found herself in the middle of the floor without remembering the next step, an instructor yelled at her to keep going. “Even if you are messing up or there’s too much on your brain, you have to keep going,” she said.

“Based on [individual] personality and dancer, we each navigated towards whatever felt most freeing to us,” Biggs said. For her, this was West African dance. “It allows me to feel a direct line of connection to my ancestors, and it’s also just so fun. It’s reverent, but it’s also cardio. It’s all about community. Every single person in a West African dance production—from the drummers to the dancers to the audience—is seen as integral to the success of the show.”

Biggs fell in love with the joyful and loving culture of Ghana.

Discovering Ghana
In January of her junior year at Elon, Biggs traveled with fourteen students on an arts-focused study-abroad trip to Ghana. Her professor partnered the trip with his local dance company, Africa Alive, creating a group of about 40 performers who toured the country by bus. They also donated laptops, toys and school supplies to local villages along the way and orchestrated pep rallies at the schools.

To this day, she remains in contact with her classmates from the trip but often finds herself wondering about the young girls she met in Ghana. “I don’t know where those girls are now, but there is still such a strong sense of love for them and that moment we created together,” she said.

“During the trip, many people came up and expressed their love for us,” she added. “The outpouring of love from people we had literally just met was overwhelming. It interests me that love is something everyone longs for, but, at least here in the states, it’s something that makes people a bit uncomfortable, especially when it comes to loving out loud.”

This further inspired Biggs to live out loud, acknowledging the shared humanity of the people she meets daily. She explored this approach to life as an intern at Elon’s Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. “As a Christian, it expanded my view of the importance of multi- and interfaith, intersecting with different religions and people who do not observe any religion and the beauty in that,” she said.

Biggs was also president of Delta Chi Xi Honorary Dance Fraternity, Inc., which she brought to her campus and built from the ground up. The organization’s goal, she said, is “to recognize the academic caliber of being a dancer or artistic student. There’s still scholarship and research that’s a part of that.”

During her time at Elon, Biggs was chosen for the Isabella Cannon Leadership Fellows program, a four-year, cohorted program designed to help students build leadership competencies through a variety of programs and experiences. She also served the community through Elon Volunteers, regularly visiting the local Boys and Girls Club, sometimes teaching dance, and participating in an urban education trip during which she taught at a preschool in California.

Biggs enjoys a laugh with coworkers at the Public Theater in New York.

Learning to Pivot
Upon graduating from Elon, Biggs received the Sullivan Award for her leadership and service to others. “It was incredible to join the company of so many great leaders,” she said. “It was magical to be recognized in this way, for my commitment and passion for community service, helping others and inspiring community, making community into a verb.”

For her senior thesis concert, she was put in charge of fundraising and administrative leadership. “I thought that experience was so fun,” she said. “I enjoyed being on that side of an audition or decision-making table instead of on the floor rehearsing for hours and hours.”

With that experience in mind, Biggs moved home to New Jersey after graduating. She worked for the director of individual giving at the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre Center. After four years there, she secured a job as membership manager with the acclaimed Public Theater in New York City. Founded by the legendary producer Joseph Papp, the Public Theater is home to “A Chorus Line,” created “Hamilton” before it hit Broadway, and has offered free productions in Central Park for more than half a century. “Our mission is to make theater of, by and for all people, and, in these days, to really make theater accessible to all people,” Biggs said.

As the Public Theater’s membership manager, Biggs oversees thousands of households of entry-level donors, ensuring they are having fun and being taken care of. “I love learning people’s stories, so it’s a really neat job,” she said.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Public Theater pivoted to digital programming. Biggs said they collaborated with two playwrights on a production written for and filmed entirely on Zoom. Entitled “The Line,” the innovative play was about medical professionals dealing with the pandemic.

One of the Public Theater’s donors, a doctor, watched the play after a hard day’s work at the hospital and told Biggs that “he had never felt more seen.” “It was gripping,” Biggs added. “We were tapping into how the arts can help tell people’s stories.”

The Public Theater has now reopened for live shows but requires proof of vaccination and masks to attend shows, offering arts lovers a deeply missed experience after more than a year of pandemic isolation. “We exist because we help provide respite for ourselves and for all kinds of people and to revive the soul of the American people as a whole,” Biggs said.

Throughout these collegiate and professional transitions, Biggs has stayed on her feet, continuing to dance. She remembers the fall semester of her freshman year—a rare period in her life without dance—and how she felt constricted and unable to express herself. “It was terrible,” she said. “I had never felt like that, and I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

Biggs has now added dance fitness as a zumba instructor to her resume. “It’s a wonderful entry point to dance,” she said. “Zumba has taught me that every body can dance or every body is a dancer.”

Biggs was a session coach at the Sullivan Foundation’s recent Fall 2021 Ignite Retreat.

Joining Conversations
During the pandemic quarantine, Biggs also learned about the Supermajority Education Fund, a leadership development training program designed for female leaders interested in learning about civic engagement. She applied to become a majority leader, looking to gain new skills in community organizing, policy implementation and leading positive change.

Biggs had always been interested in public administration and community organizing but had never felt qualified to get involved. “It has helped me see that I am the right person to serve in those roles or to learn more about that,” she said. As a member of the inaugural cohort, Biggs shared Zoom rooms with social impact leaders like Alicia Garza of the Black Lives Matter movement; LaTosha Brown, who works with voting rights groups; and actress and social advocate Sophia Bush.

Weekly conversations about social justice and election preparations allowed Biggs to see the impact women have in the world, both as the majority of voters and as individual leaders. “We have more power than we think,” she said.

Biggs also led virtual sessions with middle- and high school students. “I felt so energized from that experience,” she said. “I was able to lead sessions about election readiness, voter preparation, and then trying to enthuse young people who are not of voting age to encourage those who are of age to participate in the system.” She finds it important to begin these conversations early on; just as it’s harder to learn a musical instrument later in life, she said, it’s more difficult to create an attitude of engaged citizenship in older Americans. “[The kids] are full of joy and excitement about life,” she said. “The world through their eyes is so good, and that’s important to hold onto.”

Continuing in the spirit of education and mentorship, Biggs has coached workshops at the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2021 Ignite Retreat and led post-session discussion groups in the foundation’s Spring 2021 Ignite Masterclass series. Following the Ignite Retreat in early October, she posted on Instagram that she felt “forever grateful to the Sullivan Foundation for always being a strong anchor of hope in my life. This weekend was the start of something wonderful, and I’m so glad I was able to be a part of it, along with some phenomenal fellow coaches and some brilliant student leaders.”

As she continues to navigate the country’s evolving political and social climate, she recalls a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Faith is taking the next step even when you don’t see the staircase.”

“My dad is a reverend, so I really did grow up in the church,” she said. “The idea of faith in a religious sense, but also out of a religious context—like the faith to move on and the audacity to keep going—stems from countless lived experiences. It’s all centered on the faith to keep going. I think that drives me every day.” 

 

Toy Story: How Amanda Arseneau Jumped Off the Corporate Ladder and Found True Success With My Little Pony

By Meagan Harkins

In her first job as an intern at the national headquarters of Cracker Barrel, Amanda Cothron Arseneau, a 1999 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Cumberland University, served the company wherever she was needed—even to the point of dressing as a jellybean at a company picnic. “That’s how I got my foot in the door, and I wound up in a junior analyst position,” Arseneau recalled.

But in the coming decade, the ambitious Arseneau, who is now happily self-employed in her hometown of Gallatin, Tenn., nearly worked herself to death. She has since learned to take it easy on herself, she said, and to do her part to make life a little easier for others through volunteerism, a calling she has felt since she was a kid.

Ironically, her new life began with a return to her old life and her girlhood love for collectible My Little Pony toys.

Related: The wonderful, wonderful life of Anne Matthews

That new life, of course, didn’t come easily. By the time Arseneau had earned her masters degree from Cumberland University in 2001, she was already a year into her position as a restaurant analyst. From there, her career in corporate finance and information technology took her to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated, Sumner Regional Health Systems and Dollar General. Her work included sales unit analysis, database administration and planograming, a technique for determining how and where specific retail products should be placed on shelves or displays to increase sales.

Sumner Regional, headquartered in Gallatin, was her favorite job. “It felt like coming home,” Arseneau recalled. She’d previously spent her childhood there as a volunteer, directing people at the desk, helping with purchase orders and visiting patients. She later volunteered as a marketing intern for Sumner Regional during college.

Artist and entrepreneur Amanda Arseneau with her parents, Maxine and Ottis Cothron

But the corporate life just wasn’t for her. “I climbed pretty high, but I was also becoming disenfranchised with corporate entities,” Arseneau said. “I don’t like people being treated unfairly. Any kind of injustice just brings out this fire in me, and it was being brought out a lot.”

Eventually, Arseneau began experimenting with other jobs to decide what kind of environment she preferred. Today she runs a successful eBay store—Amanda’s Treasure Dungeon—geared toward collectors and creates and sells commissioned artwork.

After years away from the corporate office, she remains grateful for what she learned from those experiences, including teamwork, balancing opinions and personalities, effectively presenting ideas, decision making, budgeting time, and honoring deadlines. “I’ve carried that over into what I do now, but I have a lot more freedom,” Arseneau said. “That opened my eyes to things not having to be so rigid sometimes. There can be more of a workflow, appreciation for people’s schedules, a little bit more creativity.”

“You may think you have to put your creativity on the back burner to fit into a certain mold, but you can let it out,” she added. “It has value. Even if you stay in that corporate environment, let it out a little bit. I look back at some opportunities that I missed because I thought I had to stay in that perfect mold, that I couldn’t let the creativity come out in that. There were some places where I probably missed some opportunities—if I had only felt enough confidence to do that.”

Related: Danielle Biggs: “Lean into your truest self and lead out loud!”

Creating Balance
Confidence didn’t always come easily to Arseneau as a kid. She grew up with generalized anxiety disorder, which she describes as being nervous about something at every moment of every day. “There’s no rest,” she said. “There’s only so long your body can do that for.” One day, in fact, she found herself in the emergency room, worried that she was having a heart attack. All of that anxiety had taken a physical toll on her body. “I didn’t have enough adrenaline to live on,” she said. “I used it all up in this constant fight-or-flight kind of state.”

Arseneau had entered the corporate world immediately after college because it seemed like the logical next step. “I had no work-life balance at that point—it was all work. I found myself bringing it home at night. With that anxiety condition, I would not let it go. It was, frankly, just making me sick.”

From this experience, Arseneau learned that too much work can be crippling—it can’t be allowed to consume your life. People who work long hours, she noted, “are missing what’s really important. I mean, you shouldn’t live to work. You should work to live.”

After becoming self-employed and learning to manage her anxiety with medications and lifestyle changes, Arseneau gained a new perspective on life. “I’m clearer now, so I find myself wanting to help people still in that environment, navigating what they’re going through,” she said. “Find and demand a work-life balance. You will have to make some sacrifices, but don’t let a career take over your world.”

My Little Ponies
So how did Arseneau end up launching her online business and striking that balance? She grew up playing with My Little Ponies—the original G1 ponies were her favorites. Arseneau rediscovered her beloved toys in 2007. Dusting off her old collection, she began purchasing new pieces to create finished sets. Since she often had to order the toys in bulk to add just one piece to her collection, she began reselling the extra items. Over time, she got better at cleaning up, restoring and reselling them for a profit. Now Arseneau goes to yard sales to find vintage My Little Ponies and refurbishes them to sell to collectors, primarily overseas, on eBay. “It was kind of an accident, the way I fell into it,” she said.

“I believe salvaging and restoring old items is important in remembering our culture and families,” Arseneau said. “They keep us connected to the past, and I believe that’s important in preparing and succeeding in the future.”

In addition to playing with My Little Ponies, Arseneau spent her childhood drawing, especially when she volunteered at the hospital. She began selling her artwork in high school and has circled back to that passion today. Requests for commissioned artwork have led to her own Facebook page and Etsy store. After being given a photo from the customer, she recreates it with pen and black ink, creating stunning pieces that preserve clients’ favorite places and memories for a lifetime.

Related: The church and the classroom are holy places for Dr. Ray Penn

The Right College Atmosphere
Her time at Cumberland University gave her the opportunity to blossom as an artist even while preparing for a corporate career. The university felt like a natural fit, as she wanted to live at home, save money and stay near her parents. She was a business major with minors in accounting and computer information systems, but the artistic teen paid her way through school with choral and theater scholarships.

Arseneau had been involved in musical theater since the second grade, first performing in a snowman suit as Happy the Snowman. “When I sing or do theater, I don’t want to do it in front of one or two people,” she said, noting she couldn’t even look at her mother when practicing for a play as a child. “But in front of crowds, I have no fear. It was just getting to fully immerse in that fictional character and bring it to life.”

She was extremely active on campus. She performed with the Phoenix Players, University Singers and Cumberland Chorale and served the Fine Arts Alliance as secretary and treasurer. She was a member of Alpha Omicron Pi Women’s Fraternity, Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Fraternity, Alpha Lambda Delta National Honor Society, Alpha Chi National Honor Society, Alpha Psi Omega Theater Honor Society, Sigma Beta Delta National Business Honor Society, and Phi Beta Lambda Business Fraternity, which she served as president.

Amanda celebrates earning her bachelor’s degree with her mother, Maxine Cothron, in 1999.

“Cumberland changed me a lot,” Arseneau said. “I was the really shy, smart, artsy girl in high school. Then, when I hit college, everything changed. I was suddenly sought after and recognized for the skills I had. It was the kind of atmosphere that I needed to grow into who I was going to be.”

One day in the spring of her senior year, she sat doing her homework at the gazebo outside the administration building when an administrator walked up and told her she was being awarded the 1999 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award. “It took me a minute to find out why they chose me,” she said. “I was very humbled by it; I think I am to this day.”

Arseneau loved Cumberland University so much that she stayed there to work on her MBA, this time on full scholarship with paid room and board. She also worked fulltime at Cracker Barrel, ran the box office, used her lunch hour to attend choir practice, participated in every musical, and took her classes at night.

In other words, she was never a stranger to hard work. But her later transition from corporate America to being her own boss felt both immediately freeing and awkward to Arseneau. The self-discipline it required was daunting at first, but she has learned to take advantage of and enjoy her weekends and vacations. Being self-employed has also given herself the flexibility to volunteer at local hospitals, animal shelters and horseback riding programs. In the summers, she volunteers at her church, painting sets for Vacation Bible School. “It’s about using your talents where you can,” she said.

Arseneau finds herself most impacted at a personal level by continuing to volunteer at the hospital, encountering countless staff members, patients and guests every day. “I learned to recognize people in need, and, over the years, I have developed a strong drive to obtain justice for those not able or willing to find it on their own,” she said.

Amanda and her husband, Matt Arseneau

This servant-mindset came from watching her mom, Maxine Cothron, respond to the needs of her coworkers and friends. “I watched her be the person that everybody came to,” Arseneau said. “She is just this person that you drift to. I saw that, and I saw that there was no hesitation [on her part] to help somebody, ever. The joy that she would give to people—I wanted to be that, to do that, to help people. There’s maybe a little bit of selfishness because, when you help someone, you feel good.”

In addition to running Amanda’s Treasure Dungeon and her artwork, Arseneau, who has the full support of her husband, Matt, also spends her days writing speeches for individuals, preparing resumes, and helping with budgets. “There’s no unhappiness with my job because I’m utilizing my skills to do what I love,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m bored or want to do something different. Almost no one finds that perfect work position where you love to go to work every day, but I found that.”

Arseneau spoke about the expectation to continue climbing the corporate ladder, seeking raises and loftier titles. “I want people to know that sometimes it’s not about that. It’s not about climbing the ladder. That may not be the place for you. You can still utilize those skills in other ways that make you much happier and help a lot more people doing it.”

 

Elizabeth Rogg: Doing the Most Good

By Meagan Harkins

Elizabeth Jensen Rogg, a 2015 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient, chose Shenandoah University (SU) after touring the Winchester, Va. school and feeling a keen sense of belonging on the small campus tucked away in the Shenandoah Valley. And she discovered her life’s calling as a social worker after several service-based trips sponsored by SU.

The first trip took place after Hurricane Sandy struck New York in 2012. “When they said we’d be cleaning up after a hurricane, I said it was not for me,” recalled Rogg, who now lives in Mineral, Va. with her family. Still, she ended up going on the humanitarian mission due to her relationship with the campus pastor and students involved in the ministry. She and her fellow volunteers spent their spring break cleaning up debris and sleeping away the nights on the floor of a church in Staten Island.

“But I think the one trip that really helped shape me and realize that I belonged in social work was when I went, during the summer after my freshman year, to live in Africa for about two and a half months,” she said.

Rogg found herself working in the Dandora slums of Nairobi, Kenya, teaching three-year-olds how to speak English at the Baptist Children Center. She had first felt drawn to Africa after Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, founder and director of the Nyaka and Kutamba AIDS Orphans Schools in Uganda, spoke to her freshman class at Shenandoah. Kaguri, who grew up in a small Ugandan village, began his speech at SU by breaking a pencil into three parts, illustrating how a single pencil had to be divided and shared between himself, his brother and his sister when they were school children. “I don’t think anyone left that room without feeling something,” Rogg said.

After a quick Google search, Rogg found Buckner International, a Texas-based mission agency. She joined this group of strangers from Texas and trundled off to live in Kenya for a summer. “I went to Africa with the idea that I was going to change the world, but that’s not how it goes,” she said. Faced with the poverty of a developing country, she felt overwhelmed as she realized how much she took for granted as an American, but her desire to be a social worker caught fire. “As a social worker, you have the ability to make a positive impact in someone’s life, and changing that individual’s world is just as important,” she said.

Related: The church and the classroom are holy places for Dr. Ray Penn

The Servanthood Tradition
Returning to Shenandoah, Rogg continued to make a positive impact by creating a student-led group called Friends of Nyaka. The group partnered with Kaguri’s nonprofit, Nyaka Global, to organize fundraisers throughout the year to benefit partner schools in Uganda.

For their main annual fundraiser, called the Barefoot Mile, students, staff and community members received financial pledges for each mile they ran barefoot, honoring the great distances that many Ugandan children walk on bare feet to and from school each morning and afternoon.

In addition to running Friends of Nyaka, Rogg was a First Year Seminar Mentor for two years at SU, assisting faculty members by serving as an advisor to first-year students as they transitioned into university life. She also served two years as president of SU’s chapter of the Council for Exceptional Children, a program partnering individuals with local children with disabilities.

“I wasn’t expecting that Shenandoah would have such a positive impact on my life, even in tiny things,” Rogg said. Meanwhile, others were taking notice of the impact Rogg herself was having on SU. Her service-above-self lifestyle was acknowledged by multiple professors and a fellow classmate, a mere acquaintance, when they each nominated Rogg for the Sullivan Award. That fellow student happened to be sitting next to Rogg at SU’s graduation ceremony and gave her a hug when she returned from stage.

Rogg was particularly surprised by the recognition since switching majors had allowed her to graduate a year early—hence, most folks in her graduating class did not know her. “I remember being shocked that my name was called,” she said. “When they were reading my biography, I turned around to my friend and jokingly said, ‘This person does a lot of the same things I do.’”

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SU President Tracy Fitzsimmons and Dr. Justin Allen presented the award to Rogg. “They are two individuals who inspired me in my academic career, and it was such an honor to be presented this prestigious award by the two of them,” Rogg added.

Beyond academics, Shenandoah’s United Methodist Church Foundation influenced Rogg’s trajectory. “It was where my faith took priority,” she said. “Then my faith played a huge part in me becoming a social worker in the servanthood [tradition].”

Living the Faith
Rogg went on to earn her M.S. in social work from the University of Louisville in 2017. She then worked for Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope for two years in St. Mary’s, Ga. The initiative was launched in 2011 with the main goal of breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty through strength-based case management, community collaboration and data-driven support.

As a Pathway of Hope program manager, Rogg helped with project planning, including monthly job skill training and family nights, and was a case manager for 30 families. Working to equip so many families for success was daunting, but it taught Rogg to appreciate the little victories of bringing light into someone’s life. It also taught her to humbly trust that any effects that her work had on the parents would positively impact their children as well.

Rogg recalled one family case she dealt with during her two-year stint with the Salvation Army. Referred by the Department of Family Services, the parents’ two children had been recently put in foster care. At the time, Rogg thought, “The reality was that there was no way they’d be getting their children back.”

But from this experience, Rogg learned to never say never. The parents attended every job skills class, individual therapy session, family therapy session and caseworker meeting. They took advantage of every other resource at their disposal. And, about two months after Rogg had resigned from the Salvation Army, the couple called to thank her—they had regained custody of their daughters.

“Those girls would have probably remained in foster care if it wasn’t for our program and its ability to help build up that mom and dad by providing them with the skills they needed to be successful parents and to be there for their daughters,” Rogg said. “It was really special.”

When she first arrived at Shenandoah, Rogg was told, “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, at all the times you can.” This mantra resurfaced during her tenure at the Salvation Army, whose motto is “Doing the Most Good.”

Related: Rollins College alumnus “Papa Viva” creates safe haven for families affected by AIDS

“It’s just opened my eyes that you can do good anywhere,” Rogg said. “You don’t necessarily have to be in a professional setting to do good.” To continue providing both help and hope for others after leaving the Salvation Army, she has worked at a food pantry, volunteered at her church, helped quarantined community members during Covid-19, and performed her own important daily chores as a parent.

She has been married to Zack Rogg for six years, and they have relocated three times as a military family. After losing their first son, Maddox, she is now a full-time mom to her two-year-old daughter, Madden. “I feel like I lost so many experiences with my son, and I didn’t want to miss them with her, so that was the real driving factor for me staying home with her and not taking for granted the little things,” Rogg said. “The beautiful creature she is helped me heal in ways I’ve never expected.”

To celebrate Maddox’s birthday each year, the Rogg family has made sure to do something that emphasizes kindness and spreads love. The first year, a stranger donated money to the Sunshine School in Gambia, Africa, paying to erect a gate built in honor of Maddox and a plaque with his name. This past year, they collected books from friends and family to send to the Sunshine School. “To see these children’s faces means the world and honors Maddox in such a special way,” Rogg said.

In her personal life, Rogg continues her mission as a social worker daily—clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and giving shelter to those in need. Talking to her, one is reminded of a famous quote by St. Teresa of Ávila: “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

The Wonderful, Wonderful Life of Anne Matthews

By Meagan Harkins

At her house in Columbia, S.C., Anne Matthews makes her way upstairs to her home office lined with plaid wallpaper and gazes at the map centered on the wall. Seventy-two pins on the map represent the 72 countries in which she has performed humanitarian and/or educational work: South Korea, Kenya, Peru, Brazil, the Philippines, Ecuador, Argentina, Zambia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, Malaysia, Serbia, Croatia, and many others.

The walls are also lined with numerous accolades, including awards, pictures and mementos, all treasures from her life of performing good works for others: the Distinguished Service Award from the National Business Education Association; the Hall of Fame from Florence County School District 3; the John Robert Gregg Award from McGraw Hill; an Honorary Cheerleader award from the University of South Carolina; the International Service Award for a Polio Free World from Rotary International.

Matthew’s eyes crinkle as she smiles at these time stamps that bring back so many memories. “I look at them and think that I have had a wonderful, wonderful life,” she says. “I’ve had unlimited experiences.” She corrects herself: “Unlimited meaningful experiences.”

Among her many honors: the 2020 Sullivan Award, presented to her by Sullivan Foundation partner school Coker University (formerly Coker College), where she earned her bachelor’s degree in civilization and business education in 1964. She has served on Coker’s Board of Trustees and was awarded the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award. She also provides an annual scholarship and has spoken at Coker’s commencement ceremonies in the past.

Related: The church and the classroom are holy places for Sullivan Award recipient Dr. Ray Penn

Aside from philanthropy, Matthews is passionate about education. “Securing a liberal arts education is a foundation for life,” she says. “I would not give up that liberal arts education for anything.”

After graduating from Coker, Matthews attended Appalachian State University for her MBA and the University of South Carolina, also a Sullivan Foundation partner school, for her doctorate in education. In 1988, Coker awarded her an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

In her travels around the world raising money for the Rotary Foundation—another one of her passions—Matthews has seen the famous paintings, architectural wonders, literary sites, famous opera houses, and war locations that she once studied in books come to life. But teaching and serving people in need around the world have given her the greatest joy.

A Southern Lady
Thirty-three years of Matthews’ life were devoted to teaching at the high school and technical college level as well as at the University of South Carolina School of Business. She also served a stint as director of the State Department of Education. “I love students, and I love to see them learn and grow,” she says.

A native of South Carolina, she grew up with five brothers. “I learned at an early age how to be a team player and how to work with them,” she says. “I never had a problem. You learn how to negotiate, and I always tried to be a southern lady.”

Her parents taught their children to value kindness and generosity. “I’ve taken that into every role I’ve had,” Matthews says. She preaches the importance of good manners in working toward one’s objectives.

Matthews became involved with humanitarian work by joining Rotary District 7770 in 1989. The first woman admitted into the male-dominated club, she later became the first female governor of their Rotary District and the first female vice president of Rotary International in 2013. “It was quite interesting,” she says, to be a genteel, charming southern woman among so many men.

She has spent the past 30 years on the road and in the air for the Rotary Foundation. “I knew I would go where I was needed,” she says, although she had no idea it would take her to 72 countries. “I have never told anybody ‘no’ when it comes to the Rotary Foundation.”

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“I’ve learned that we all need to have a good dose of tolerance,” she says, reflecting on her travels. “We need to appreciate and value different cultures, even within the U.S. It doesn’t matter where one comes from. What matters is how we learn to deal with and respect one another.”

Similar to the Sullivan Foundation, “service above self” is the Rotarian mantra, a phrase that sparked Matthews’ interest in joining the organization. “I firmly believe that is what my life is about,” she says. “I’ve been so fortunate and so blessed in my life, I believe I need to share with others.”

While many of her trips have been for fundraising purposes, she has visited India three times to vaccinate children against polio. Along with others, she rode a boat through Peru to the Amazon jungle, then walked more than a mile to help build a water well. She has also journeyed five times to the Republic of Ghana in West Africa, which she has adopted as her “second country.”

Matthews and other Rotarians provided the funding for the first modern elementary school in the Tain District of Ghana. Alongside the school, the first designated male and female restrooms were erected. Her group provided books, installed solar panels, placed new desks and chairs, and added computers in the school.

After witnessing women and children in the Tain District walk more than five miles twice daily to retrieve contaminated water, Matthews was determined to help the villagers get access to clean water. During subsequent visits to Ghana, she helped provide funding for medical clinics and 500-plus wells, several of which connected to sanitation systems. The children reacted with overwhelming smiles and bright, joyful eyes to their brand-new school and clean water.

Combating Polio and Hunger
Eradicating polio is a top Rotarian priority, and Matthews has helped raise millions over the years to eliminate this dreadful, crippling disease. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a partnership led by Rotary International, was started in 1988, and since then more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized, 18 million have been spared disability, and more than 900,000 polio-related deaths have been averted. There are only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, still struggling with the wild poliovirus, according to Rotary International Advocacy Specialist Kris Tsau.

In addition to wiping out polio worldwide and making clean water and sanitation systems available in developing countries, other Rotary Foundation fundraising efforts focus on promoting literacy, ending poverty and hunger, and providing maternal health care needs to women.

Matthews’ strongest passion, she says, is “wiping hunger off the face of the earth.” She adds, “I just don’t see why we have hungry people when there’s so much plentiful food.”

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She sees food security as a mission that transcends international borders. Donations to the Rotary Foundation and involvement with local food banks are two ways to begin solving the problem, she says. “I think people should be more aware of hunger. Why can’t we do it? We can if we want to, if we’d put our heart and soul into it.”

Matthews is also a board member of both Rise Against Hunger, an international nonprofit headquartered in Raleigh, N.C., and Harvest Hope Food Bank, which feeds up to 2,000 people some days in Columbia, S.C.

“I cannot stand to see people on the road with a sign that states they are hungry,” Matthews says. Despite being advised not to, she gives homeless individuals a dollar or a few quarters each time she sees them at an intersection, in hopes they will buy a sandwich. “I’ve done what I should do,” she says. “Now what they do with the money, that’s between that person and God, not me any longer.”

“I Know I Can Make a Difference”
Nowadays, Matthews’ travels don’t take her far—she’s limited to Zoom meetings due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Just this morning she worked with the Rotary Club of Polokawane in South Africa, supporting an orphanage for blind children. Later this afternoon she will travel to India via Zoom. While she is still confident about the completion of her projects, Matthews misses the cultural exchanges and personal relationships that she has built over the decades.

“People are missing out on the greatest gift, and that is helping other people,” she says. “They miss out on helping those in need when they don’t learn this early in life. I believe we’re put here for a purpose, and that purpose is to make a difference. I really believe that.”

Fortunately, Matthews has a talent for convincing others—even strangers—to do their part. In November 2019, she spoke at a Rotary Club meeting about the work of the Rotary Foundation. “All I did was speak, from a personal standpoint, for about 25 minutes,” she says.

After the meeting, a man approached her and said he was pleased to learn of the Rotary Foundation’s humanitarian work. “I thought he might donate $5,000 or so dollars,” she recalls. “The next week I was called back by that club president. The gentleman wrote a check to the Rotary Foundation for $1 million.”

“That $1 million donation was because I spoke about the good the Foundation does in the world,” she adds. “I am passionate about doing good in the world. Feeding the hungry, providing clean water and sanitation, and eradicating polio—those are things we have to tackle.”

“What I want to do for the rest of my life is to help folks who cannot help themselves,” Matthews concludes. “This might sound selfish, but I know I can make a difference.”

The Church and the Classroom Are Holy Places for Dr. Ray Penn

By Meagan Harkins

“To me, the greatest fun is helping someone else, but our culture doesn’t teach that,” said Dr. Ray Penn, a 2001 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Community Member Award at Lincoln Memorial University. “Our culture teaches you to be self-centered, to do something nice for yourself today, that you ‘deserve this.’”

Penn, 72, sees things a little differently. A retired minister, college chaplain, hospital chaplain and professor of speech, philosophy and religious studies, he long ago discovered the joy of devoting his time, energy and prayer to serving others. This mindset was influenced by a seminary professor, Dr. Harry Taylor, who once told him, “We come into this world naked, bald and penniless. And we leave life pretty much naked, pretty much bald and pretty much penniless. And everything in the middle is stewardship—using what you have been given to help someone else.”

Much of Penn’s stewardship has been in the form of counseling. The major problems he has seen revolve around lack of purpose and suicidal thoughts. He regularly worked with individuals on the brink of committing suicide and walked alongside families who lost loved ones to suicide.

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Now retired from formal counseling, Penn is a respondent for Quora, a question-and-answer website, where 80,000 users have read his responses to questions about the meaning of life, relationship issues and religion.

“What astounds me and pains me is how many young adults in their 20s and 30s say they have done everything they have ever wanted to and no longer have meaning in life,” he said. They often feel like a kid who can peer inside a candy store—where everyone looks happy and seems to be having a great time—but cannot find the doorknob, he noted.

“Talking about it and receiving proper medication will help you find that doorknob,” Penn said.

When Uncle Louie Comes to Visit
He speaks and coaches from personal experience, as he inherited depression from his father, who inherited it from his father. Penn first received medication for depression at age 50. “From then on, I actually knew what happiness was,” he recalled.

Penn found it both challenging and refining to be a spiritual father to many while experiencing such spiritual darkness. “It was an education in you-don’t-always-have-to-feel-the-presence-of-God,” he said. “Sometimes you have to hold on with your mind to what your heart is not feeling.”

To cope with it, Penn gave his depression a name, “Uncle Louie,” as an acknowledgement and reminder that it was not synonymous with himself—more like a relative who comes to visit. With regular medication and therapy, Penn has kept Uncle Louie further away and learned to recognize the triggers that may invite him back for a visit.

It was a Jewish psychiatrist who first prescribed antidepressants to Penn. Dr. Jerry Lemler met Penn when he joined Penn’s congregation for one Sunday. “Jerry used to say that our worship service, which included a confession of our sins, did more mental health work in an hour than he was able to do with patients in a week,” Penn remembers. “He said, ‘You don’t know how many people want to hear that they can be forgiven.’”

Along with teaching God’s mercy, Penn believes the best evangelism is relational. “I found it better to ask good questions than to make long statements,” he said. This includes giving people a space to name their feelings while guiding them to discover their own self-core. “It’s the grace that comes, that love that will never let you go, that love that will help you make it through.”

“People have written hundreds of books on happiness, and I pretty much know it comes down to just this: Happiness is like a bird,” he said. “If you try to run toward it, it will fly away. If you put yourself in the center and want something to make you happy, it will fly away. But if you throw your life into helping others, happiness will perch on your shoulder. Happiness is a byproduct of servanthood.”

During a trip to Greece, Penn posed for this photo in the spot where the apostle Paul preached to the Athenians near the Parthenon.

Divine Mercy
Ironically, Penn, an only child, wasn’t raised in a Christian home. Quite the opposite. His mother was Roman Catholic, but his dad forbade her from wearing Christian jewelry or having any religious paintings or statues in the house.

He grew up in Loda, Illinois, a hamlet of just 520 people. His mother, who had a sixth-grade education, taught Penn to read early on, and his favorite entertainment was going to the library.

As an eight-year-old, he also loved exploring their house. “In my mom’s closet, she had this picture [that showed] Jesus’ heart bleeding for others,” he said. “Later, in a dream, that Jesus came to me and just called me by name.”

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Penn was a Christian from then on, attending the local Methodist church with his maternal grandmother. After suffering a broken leg, Penn had to be pushed down the alley in a heavy, wooden wheelchair. Men in the church then picked up his chair, carried him over the stairs and placed him in the corner to worship. “I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it must be important for my grandmother and those men to do what they did,” Penn said.

Those same men eventually became like fathers to him. Each year, one of the men bought an extra ticket for the father-son banquet and took Penn to the event as their own. “They never made it feel like a charity case, and those men mentored me in the faith,” he recalled.

Dr. Penn at the age of 4, after being injured by a car

When Penn was 15, his minister, Reverend Marvin Snapp, gifted him with the book, “Conversion,” by E. Stanley Jones, which Penn read during his first-period class at school. “It was not a revival that brought me to Christ,” he said. “I just felt enveloped by this love that will not let me go.”

Decades later, people sometimes ask him: Doesn’t college ruin faith? “I have seven degrees, and nothing has ruined my faith yet,” he said. “You have to know how to defend your faith, which I help students do. I have not learned anything that is true that has ever challenged my faith.”

Shaping the Future
Penn felt called to teaching after 10 years in pastoral ministry. “There is something important to me about the classroom,” he said. “I always dress up for holy places—church and the classroom.”

He taught at Radford University in Virginia beginning in 1986. After 11 years, he returned to ministry in Tennessee, pastoring a church across the street from Lincoln Memorial University, where he was a professor of philosophy and religion for 13 years. It was there that he received the Sullivan Award in 2001, honoring his counseling and ability to motivate students.

At the ceremony, Penn admits he found himself gazing off into the bleachers as he waited for the ceremony’s end, when he would deliver the benediction. “When they listed the academic credentials of the [Sullivan Award recipient] and mentioned McDendree College, I wondered who else on the faculty went to that college. By the time they mentioned Wesley Seminary, I was utterly shocked to realize it was me. I was totally speechless, which is a rarity for me.”

Related: Alice Lloyd College grads reflect on decades of teaching Kentucky’s youth

“The award confirmed that when you focus on making others happy, then happiness comes to stay in your life,” Penn said. The award plaque now hangs on the wall of his office, and the Sullivan Medallion sits on his desk. “The award is a permanent reminder that others saw how my life has brought happiness to others. The fact that others were watching that still surprises and blesses me.”

Penn’s teaching style was dynamic and vibrant, always striving to engage students. For some lectures, he showed up wearing items from his large collection of hats and costumes. “I will do anything to keep the interest of students, in some cases waking them up, to get them excited about what I’m excited about,” he said.

His students surprised him almost every day in the classroom. “There’s this wonderful electric moment where everyone in class knows you’re talking about something important, and some student responds to my question in a way I have never thought about before.”

“I’m sort of a romantic,” Penn added. “I look at these students, and it’s my way of shaping the future.” Students need more than just a professor, he believes—they need a role model, someone standing with them at the crossroads of life. “You’re not just teaching the mind,” he said. “You’re helping to mold character.”

Interconnectivity
Penn married Gretchen Hakola in 2009 after meeting her at Northwestern University. Today, they’re retired and living in LaFollette, Tennessee. Every week, they go to the movies together at the Regal in Knoxville. He’s also working on his autobiography and teaches a radio course in an adult continuing-education program.

Reflecting on the self-quarantine induced by COVID-19, he said, “I have learned how important connections are. It has dangled in front of us, a need every day to think about everyone else around us … the fact that we’re connected to others.”

The past year has been a sobering one for Penn as he has witnessed his peers struggle with isolation. “We need to keep reminding ourselves that we’re connected to everyone else in this country and in the world,” he said.

“The Sullivan Foundation has a hard road to changing this self-centered attitude in our culture,” he added. “I’m honored to help it in any way I can. There has to be a counter voice to the voices of self-centeredness and selfishness.”

 

Joel Iwaskiewicz: A Life Dedicated to Pursuit of Systematic Change

Joel Iwaskiewicz
Rhodes College
2010 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award Recipient

Joel Iwaskiewicz, a 2010 graduate of Rhodes College, currently teaches English and theatre at the high school level. He’s also a fighter for the rights of economically and socially disadvantaged communities, and he says his political activism “has energized and focused my service life.” 

What did receiving the Sullivan Award mean to you?
I was surprised and humbled to receive the Sullivan Award during my graduation ceremony. As a Bonner Scholar at Rhodes College, my undergraduate career was defined by service leadership, and it meant the world to be recognized for that commitment to the beautiful communities I had the privilege to work with on campus and throughout Memphis.

Tell us about your career and what you do now?
I am a high school English teacher and theatre educator in New Hampshire. I didn’t anticipate heading down this path, but now I couldn’t imagine things turning out any other way. My life has been shaped by the kindness, wisdom and enthusiasm of teachers. I hope I might impact my own students in a similar way.

Are you involved with any community service or community outreach today?
I volunteer regularly in support of progressive political campaigns at the local, state and national levels. Engaging in political activism has energized and focused my service life. In pursuit of systemic change, I am able to engage with the systems I believe can have the greatest impact in the pursuit of justice.

The Sullivan Foundation promotes positive social change in its programming and overall message. What are some social issues that matter most to you today?
I’m passionate about anti-racism and anti-bias work, racial justice, environmental justice, and civil and human rights, particularly among BIPOC and the LGBTQ+ communities.

If pressed to give one piece of advice to younger people, what would you tell them?
Invest your time, money and energy in the causes that wake you up in the morning and keep you up at night. Where your passion is engaged, your work will have the most meaning and motivation.

Danielle Biggs: “Lean into Your Truest Self and Lead Out Loud!”

Danielle Biggs
2015 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award Recipient
Elon University

Danielle Biggs fell in love with dance when she was just two years old. She earned her degree in Dance and Arts Administration from Elon University and remains a passionate supporter of the arts. But she has coped with “fleeting bouts of imposter syndrome” on her way to becoming a “fierce female leader” and changemaker in her community.

What do you remember most about receiving the Sullivan award? Were you surprised?

I was very pleasantly surprised when I received this award! When I learned I was a recipient, I eagerly researched a bit more about the Foundation and about previous national recipients. It was incredible to join the company of so many great leaders. I figured that, as an Isabella Cannon Leadership Fellow and a student leader on campus, I was being recognized for the work I had done to foster community in my four years at Elon. It was magical to be recognized in this way, and my award still sits proudly on my dresser, now in my “home office!”

Tell us about your career and what you do now.

I studied Dance and Arts Administration in undergrad, and I currently work as an arts marketer and fundraiser. I feel blessed to still be working in this field amidst a pandemic. This time of shuttered performance halls and museums has offered us all insight into a world without the power and healing transformation that can come from gathering to take in live performance. I first fell in love with dance when I was two years old and was mesmerized by dancers in my childhood church. Arts and culture are one of the most ancient methods to archive our shared human experience, and I enjoy being a stalwart [arts supporter] through my professional work.

Are you involved with any community service or community outreach now?

I recently graduated in the inaugural cohort as a Majority Leader of the Supermajority Education Fund, a leadership development training program designed for fierce female leaders with aspirations to change the world. I learned about civic action, sparking community change and various issues pertaining to political elections and beyond. Out of this opportunity, I have been able to lead virtual sessions with middle- and high-schoolers about civic action and leadership. These experiences have enlivened me and encouraged me to continue factoring community outreach into my professional and personal endeavors.

The Foundation promotes positive social change in its programming and overall message. What are some social issues that matter most to you today?

There are various social issues that matter most to me. As a Black woman and Afro-Latina, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration rights and women’s rights are core to who I am and the family I come from. Additionally, I am passionate about the federal funding of our arts and culture, education reform and protecting our precious planet with smarter environmental economic decisions.

If pressed to give one piece of advice to younger people, what would you tell them? What have you learned as an adult that you wish you’d known earlier in life?

Just be you. Always. All ways. The latter half of that is engraved in a bracelet I wear every day and bought for myself about three years ago on Valentine’s Day, created as a collaboration between Mantraband and the poet Alex Elle. For so many years, I tried to fit into the leadership shoes of others or felt the tug to alter aspects of myself to meet the needs of a group or even had fleeting bouts of imposter syndrome. However, I am enough. I have always been enough. I would tell younger people, “You are enough exactly as you are.

 

 

 

 

 

Julie Copeland: Time Can Be Your Greatest Ally and Your Worst Enemy

Julie Copeland
1998 Mary Mildred Sullivan Award Recipient
Wofford College

Since receiving the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award as a senior at Wofford College, Julie Copeland (pictured above with her husband) went on to live a truly stellar life of service in addition to her successful career in human resources. She shares some wisdom about using your time wisely, both in your own day-to-day life and as a gift you offer to others.

Were you surprised to receive the Sullivan Award? What do you think you did to receive the award?

I was most surprised and also absolutely delighted! I think my involvement on campus as a leader in various organizations, including serving as Panhellenic President and being a Bonner Scholar, led to my consideration for the award.

Tell us about your career and what you do now. How did you choose your career? Why did you go into this particular field?

I’m an HR executive. I chose the HR profession because I feel that human capital is an organization’s greatest asset, and, hence, I wanted to have an influence and impact on people.

Are you involved with any community service or community outreach now?

I am heavily involved in my community and have served on numerous professional and civic boards. Giving back through my time and treasure has shaped me as a leader in countless, positive ways. I am a director with the National League of Junior Cotillions. I also serve as a trustee with the Greensboro History Museum and was past board chair and president. I’m president of the Belle Meade Society, a former trustee of the Greensboro Public Library, a past president of the Junior League of Greensboro, past chair of Guilford Technical Community College’s Business and Advisory Board, and a former board member of the Human Resources Management Association of Greensboro.

The Foundation promotes positive social change in its programming and overall message. What are some social issues that matter most to you today?

Education, work and occupations and public health.

If pressed to give one piece of advice to younger people, what would you tell them?

Appreciate your time. It can and will be your greatest ally and your worst enemy. Covet your time as a very important treasure. Time is a gift. Gift your time in ways that make a difference. Spend your time very wisely. Invest your time with people and priorities that matter. Honor your time. Respect others’ time. Above all, make your time count.

Police Psychologist Kimberly Miller Works Through Law Enforcement to Help the Underserved

Dr. Kimberly Miller
1993 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award Recipient
Auburn University

What do you remember most about receiving the Sullivan award?

I was humbled, honored and surprised. I did not know that my faculty and my dean put me up for this award. I think I was chosen for my character (humility, caring, always doing the right thing over what is easy, focusing on others first, and leaving a person, place or thing better than I found it). As part of my focus on serving others within the university, I helped turn around the psychology honors society and made it more of a proactive resource for students. We also did fundraising for a child care facility on campus and held many valuable in-person events that were not done before. We created a formal initiation ceremony and were more connected to our students. In terms of my community commitment, I volunteered at Project Head Start for over two years, working with a child with emotional and behavioral challenges. I was a rape counselor and a listener and trainer at the crisis center, and I worked as a peer educator at the university health clinic for students.

Who nominated you for the Sullivan Award? What was your relationship like with this person, and do you still have a relationship with them now?

Well it started with the chair of the psychology department (Dr. Bill Hopkins) and my dean, who also awarded me with the College of Liberal Arts Graduate of the Year award—I can’t remember his name. I had a great relationship with Dr. Hopkins, and he was actually my direct supervisor when I was president of the psychology honor society. He was also my mentor, and we kept in touch for years after I graduated. I have actually been looking to reconnect with him—I think he is in Georgia now.

Tell us about your career and what you do now. Why did you go into this particular field?

When I was 17 years old, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist. After having this realization, I chose to go to Auburn and get a BA in psychology and then continue my education to earn my MA at Ball State University (clinical psychology) and my Ph.D. at Colorado State University (counseling psychology). I was called to this career by God. I knew He put me on the planet to leave a person, place or thing better than I found it, and, for me, psychology was the avenue that I could use to serve others and make the world a better place.

After my time at Auburn, I worked as a substance abuse counselor and recreational therapist for blind veterans at the VA Hospital in Birmingham, and then I went on to graduate school, where I again worked as an addictions counselor and ran the psychology department’s advising center for students. For my thesis project, I developed a new strengths-based measure of psychology wellbeing, which I validated on over 1,200 community members. My clinical sample included individuals who were struggling with substance abuse in homeless shelters, halfway houses, inpatient and outpatient rehab facilities, etc. My non-clinical sample included individuals who were experiencing some level of stress but were functional in life. I obtained this sample from organizations such as law enforcement agencies, hospitals, banks and non-profits.

My goal for this project was twofold: 1) to help the facilities provide a new way to assess and more effectively treat their clients, and 2) to help organizations realize where their employees were in terms of wellness and make changes to the organization (i.e., culture, practices, policies, etc.) to improve the wellbeing of employees. I knew that if organizations could take better care of their employees, the employees would take better care of their customers/community.

The results of my thesis were amazing, and every site that I provided a comprehensive report to was grateful and used the data I provided to improve their organization. They also agreed to participate a second time (for my dissertation) so they could receive additional feedback and continue to improve. I am honored to say that, for the work I was able to do in collaboration with the communities I was privileged to serve, I was awarded Thesis of The Year for 2005 for the entire university, which had never been won by a graduate student in the psychology department.

For my dissertation project, I continued this research, but I added a few additional measures as suggested by the non-clinical sites. For this project, I added a specific measure of job satisfaction and qualitative questions on culture, leadership, what they like most and least about their agency, etc. For this project, I collected data in both Indiana and Colorado and had close to 2,000 community participants. Again, everyone was grateful for the feedback and free consultation services I offered.

Additionally, since I am Cherokee and passionate about serving the Native American community, I conducted a cross-cultural validation of my measure with a sample of 15 Native Elders. They all agreed that my measure is valid for use with Native people and within Native communities. These same elders were grateful that I approached this project in a strengths-based fashion, since Native communities are used to being pathologized.

During my time at Colorado State, I volunteered to work on Native American substance abuse research and published several articles and presented at conferences. I also worked in the counseling center providing therapy for students and community members who could not afford treatment. Additionally, during this time I joined the Society of Indian Psychologists and became a board member so I could better serve this group. Furthermore, I was an active member of the Native group on campus and would volunteer my time in the organization to serve students, help run retreats and provide supports to students who were struggling.

Tell us about your work as a police psychologist.

In graduate school I began working with law enforcement through my dissertation and thesis projects. However, after I graduated, law enforcement continued to reach out to me for assistance (i.e., strategic planning, succession planning, classes on employee motivation, leadership, communication, conflict, etc.), and I started working with this community more. During this same time, (after I graduated), I was a research faculty member at Colorado State University, continuing my research in Native Communities examining substance use rates and prevention efforts. I was  also involved with a group at the university that was doing training for teachers and parents in Native and underserved schools. I was a lead on this project and provided numerous training sessions around the state of Colorado. However, the more law enforcement called me and I became too busy to keep up with three very different jobs, I decided to leave Colorado State and focus the majority of my work with law enforcement.

Since 2014, I have grown my training, consulting and coaching company and, to date, I have worked with over 150 law enforcement agencies around the country. Being a police psychologist has truly changed my life and enabled me to serve a truly underserved population. In school my focus was on youth and adults with substance abuse disorders, and I still have a passion for serving these groups. However, the law enforcement community truly sought me out, and I got led to do the majority of my work with them. They have many struggles and challenges, and I have been honored that they have trusted me enough to be open to my feedback, instruction and guidance. I truly know I make a difference every day with this population.

Are you involved with any community service or community outreach now? What service opportunities have you been involved with in the past?

My current outreach involves staying as active as I can with the Native group on campus (though this is limited now because of COVID); mentoring Native graduate students; conducting research and statistical analysis on the effectiveness of the CSU Native groups’ annual STEM Camp; and being an active member in the Society of Indian Psychologists and facilitating talking circles for our members each month, where we discuss our struggles and success. In general, it is a place our Native psychologists and graduate students can receive support regularly. Additionally, I serve as the president of the National Sheriffs’ Association’s Psychological Services Group, where we provide free training and consultation services to its members. We are also available for emergency crisis intervention.

I also provide free webinars (about 12 or so a year) for a wide range of customers (e.g., law enforcement, school/universities, nursing homes, other therapists, and non-profits) and write regular articles in magazines, where I provide tips, suggestions and advice on how people can transform their personal and professional lives. Finally, I usually have at least one or two individuals whom I gift with free coaching or therapy sessions because of their life or economic challenges.

As far as what I have done in the past, my volunteering began in high school, where I worked several times a month for a few years at an organization that served a very poor, violence-ridden community in Birmingham. When I was at Auburn, I was a rape counselor, peer health educator, listener and trainer at the crisis center and a volunteer at Head Start, where I worked for two years with a child that had emotional and behavioral problems. As president of the Psychology Honor Society (PSI CHI), I also facilitated fundraisers for a childcare facility on campus. At Ball State, I volunteered for campus projects (the advising center for students and the University Strategic Planning committee). In the state of Indiana, I worked with clients in treatment centers, homeless shelters and halfway houses, providing therapy and education. At Colorado State, I volunteered my time to work in Native American substance abuse research and volunteered in our community clinic, where I provided free assessment and therapy services for the underserved members of Fort Collins. I also volunteered my time with the Native group on campus in all the ways I mentioned earlier. During this time, I was also asked to be an advisory board member for one of the clinics I worked with in Indiana and served on their board for over a decade.

After graduating, I volunteered to serve as a supervisor and facilitator for a few at-risk summer camps for youth who were struggling. In this role, I helped to screen the youth who applied to determine who would be the best fit for the camp, developed a strength-based curriculum to be used at the camps, conducted all the counselor trainings, supervised the counselors, created an evaluation tool to help assess the effectiveness of the camps and provided education and experiential activities for the youth. Additionally, for the Native group on campus (who ran a yearly STEM camp for Native students), I have created a survey and evaluation tool that has been used for years to help us get feedback from the campers and also track their long-term success of the program.

I don’t know if there is enough time to adequately express the profound effect these experiences have had on me. All of these shaped my life and my mindset and further spurred me to leave a person, place or thing better than I found it. They have also provided me new perspectives and an understanding of those who are different from me. They helped me to connect with people I would not have normally had the chance to build relationships with and enabled me to see how we are all connected through the human experience.

It has also shown me that it truly is the small things that matter; it’s how we treat people, a kind word we say, going the extra mile, or being willing to persevere during difficult times that makes all the difference. I was put on the planet to serve, and all of these experiences have enabled me to live my purpose. I know I have received more from these opportunities than I have ever given, and I am grateful for everyone.

What are some social issues that matter most to you today?

Police reform, climate change, racism, the political division/hate we have in our country, and the lack of character we show in how we treat each other.

If asked to give one piece of advice to younger people, what would you tell them?

Find what you are called to do and do that thing exceptionally well. This means sometimes going against what other people want or think you should do and intentionally practicing and using your gifts each day. Sometimes, when we are living our passion and feel we are effective in that role, we forget we must practice and always strive to be better. You will never stop having opportunities to learn. Take them all—the good and the bad—and stay focused on your purpose. When you do this, life will be a joy, and you will be blessed beyond measure. Additionally, never forget that character is the foundation of who you are; it drives the decisions you make and will make or break how you are perceived. Remember, this is the most important perishable skill!!

Can you think of anything you would have done differently when you were younger?

What I wished I knew earlier was how much I was in my own way. Yes, I offered a lot of positive things to the world, but if I truly was open to feedback and had more perspective earlier on in life, I would have been much more effective. I would not have burned as much negative energy and would have worked more on myself rather than trying to change others. Many times, we can’t see our faults, or we just blame other people for their reactions. But we can’t truly understand how we come across or what experiences we create for others until we are willing to ask, learn from the feedback and moderate ourselves so we can be more effective as humans.

Rafael Egues, Jr.: We’re All Unique and Important Pieces of a Larger Puzzle

Rafael Egues, Jr.
1981 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award Recipient
Auburn University

Now a consultant specializing in guiding professional associations to greater success, Rafael Egues, Jr., the son of Cuban immigrants, arrived at Auburn as “a fish out of water.” By the time he graduated, he was a Sullivan Award winner with a commitment to service and a passion for solving the problem of homelessness. Here, he reflects on his career and talks about how every individual is an important piece of society’s great puzzle.


What do you remember most about receiving the Sullivan award?

I was very surprised. I did not know the award existed prior to being notified that I would be the recipient. I was very involved on campus and held a variety of leadership positions, particularly during my senior year. I was the first in my family to go to college and put myself through school as a co-op student. I was very grateful to Auburn for being such a wonderful place to learn, think and grow, and I just wanted to do whatever I could before graduating to make Auburn an even better place for others.

Who nominated you for the Sullivan Award?

I am not 100% sure, but I believe it was Dr. Albert W. Sistrunk, who at the time was the assistant dean of students. As a student, I looked up to him as a mentor, and we have stayed in touch over the years. I grew up in northern New Jersey, the son of Cuban immigrants. My family moved to Fort Lauderdale when I was in high school, and from there I decided to go to Auburn. Initially, I was a bit of a fish out of water but the sincere interest and timely advice of administrators, including Dr. Sistrunk, made Auburn home for five years.

Tell us about your career and what you do now.

I’m nearing retirement age now and am fortunate to do work that I love as the owner and managing partner of a consulting firm that specializes in providing administrative services to professional associations. I started my career in the electric utility industry and later worked in the healthcare field, where I spent a decade rehabilitating failing health plans and selling them. I’ve also been the vice president for public and community affairs for a publicly traded staffing firm, and I spent a year doing consulting work in Europe. I suppose the common denominator is that I was always eager to take on a challenge. I have been blessed with the ability to see and make the needed adjustments to improve operations and to inspire others to accomplish more.

What service opportunities have you been involved with during your career?

I have been involved with many not-for-profit organizations over the years. As I was growing up, my parents instilled in my brothers and me a love and appreciation for America and a sense of duty to country and community. Early in my career, I volunteered at the Latin American Association in Atlanta and became its board chairman, helping to transform it from a very small mom-and-pop and set it on a course to becoming a large nonprofit.

Shortly after moving to Miami, I was asked to help give structure to the humanitarian effort that became Brothers to the Rescue. I later joined the board of Spectrum Programs, the region’s largest drug rehab agency, which soon afterwards acquired Miami Behavioral Health and subsequently became Banyan Health Systems. Banyan then achieved certification as a federally qualified health center. I chaired the Spectrum Board and was the first chair of the Banyan Board and the Banyan Foundation board. After a decade of service at Banyan, I served for eight years on the board of the Miami Dade County Homeless Trust as the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce designee. I also organized the health committee of the American Staffing Association. Today, I am most involved in serving the needy and the handicapped as a member and leader in the Knights of Columbus.

The Foundation promotes positive social change in its programming and overall message. What are some social issues that matter most to you today?

I have been very involved in efforts addressing mental health, substance abuse and homelessness. But I am most passionate about combating hopelessness. I take advantage of opportunities to mentor, inspire and unite others to help them achieve more than they can achieve alone.

If pressed to give one piece of advice to younger people, what would you tell them?

We are all puzzle pieces, and each of us is a unique and therefore important piece. We are all better together. Take time to consider what you have to offer. Don’t be afraid to take on any challenge that tugs at your heart and build. Be a builder and know that you can’t build companies or organizations or communities or anything meaningful without uniting and building up others.