Rev. Dorothy Wells Sanders: MLK’s Work “Was Not Done, and Neither Is Ours”

Rev. Dorothy Sanders Wells is carrying on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis because, as she stated in a powerful sermon on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, “His work was not done, and neither is ours.”

A former attorney and 1982 graduate of Rhodes College, which presented her with the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award in 2015, Wells advocates for the Black community through her work as a minister and works with several nonprofits in the Memphis area.

But, as Wells told the Sullivan Foundation, she didn’t always plan to be a minister—in fact, her career has been a long and winding one, from earning a degree in music at Rhodes to practicing law for nearly two decades and, finally, heeding God’s call to enroll in divinity school at Emory University.

She can trace her activism back to her tenure as a music major at Rhodes College, where she learned a lot more than music theory. There, she began tutoring elementary school students at a local neighborhood center and discovered a passion for justice, ethics and service to marginalized communities. After an accomplished four years at Rhodes—she became the school’s first African-American student to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa—she went on to law school, then practiced with a Memphis firm and later became a corporate attorney for FedEx.

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

But God was calling her back. “After having spent 18 years practicing law in the Memphis area, I entered the ordination process in the Episcopal Church, attended seminary, and was ordained a priest,” recalled Wells, who now serves as the rector for St. George’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, a suburb of Memphis.

Dorothy Sanders Wells serves as rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, Tenn.

“The path to ordination was a long one for me,” she said. “The first stirrings that I felt of having been called to ordained ministry probably happened 10 years before I would ever say those words aloud. It’s been a wonderful and rewarding journey so far. I love parish ministry. I love serving God’s people. I love working in this community, and I love helping God’s people know how much God loves us all.”

Wells has sat on the boards of three Memphis-area community organizations, including the Metropolitan Interfaith Association (MIFA). She was MIFA’s board chair from 2018 to 2020. “MIFA was established after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and serves as the local Meals-on-Wheels organization and also the ‘home’ of the community homeless hotline and Rapid Rehousing team,” she said.

Additionally, she serves on the boards of Church Health (a community health partner for the underinsured) and the Community Alliance for the Homeless. She has also been “very involved” in the Room in the Inn ministry, a group of churches that provide overnight shelter for people experiencing homelessness. In her attorney days, she sat on the board of Memphis Area Legal Services, which assists people who lack access to legal resources.

Related: Jared Belcher: Listen to your “enemies” to better understand their fears and suffering

“All of these organizations point to the ways in which so many here are underserved and the ways in which the community can come together to support them,” Wells said.

When the city of Memphis recognized the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, Wells took to the pulpit at Calvary Episcopal Church on April 4, 2018, and urged her listeners to continue the civil rights leader’s important work. She had attended that same church as a student at Rhodes and considered it a second home, although it sits next to the site of a slave auction operated by Nathan Bedford Forrest during the mid-1860s.

In her sermon (see video above), Wells offered remarks about the painful legacy of slavery and the need for collective responsibility and accountability for the country’s past evils. She said Dr. King’s work “was not done and neither is ours.” The work “cannot be done,” she explained, as long as Black Memphians remain mired in poverty, are twice as likely to be unemployed as white Memphians, and “the vast majority of the underperforming schools in the state of Tennessee sit right here in Memphis and serve our poor and vulnerable neighborhoods.”

“The truth of our shared history—and it is our shared history, there is no black history, there is no white history, there is a history of all of us who have lived in this country together for 400 years—the truth of our shared history is that there’s a lot of painful stuff in our history, but now we walk a reality together,” Wells said in the sermon. “And together we must hold one another, not in bitterness, not in hatred, not in anger, but in love. And now in accountability. Because now it is up to us to redress the wrongs of the past. Now it is up to us to figure out how, together, we move to a better place in the future.”

Wells’ own work as an anti-poverty activist continues to this day, as she detailed in her interview with the Sullivan Foundation. “Memphis is now a majority African American city, probably close to 65% now, and one-third of those persons live in poverty,” she said. “Nearly half of our community’s children live in poverty. Many of our families living in poverty are underemployed, are served by underperforming schools, and live in food deserts.”

Wells believes it’s time for people of means to start giving back to the underserved. “I would love for the privileged in our community to think for just a moment about how much better off our entire community would be if we would try to lift up some of the underemployed, undereducated, and underserved,” she said. “There’s so much potential here.”

Dr. Patricia Flynn Leads HIV/AIDS Research at One of the World’s Top Hospitals

Dr. Patricia Flynn received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Rhodes College (then called Southwestern at Memphis) in 1977. It was an auspicious beginning to a rewarding career that has impacted countless lives. She went on to earn her medical degree from LSU in 1981, and from there, she eventually landed a position at one of the world’s most prestigious and beloved medical institutions, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which provides free treatment for children battling cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Dr. Flynn holds the Arthur Ashe Chair in Pediatric AIDS Research at St. Jude and specializes in HIV/AIDS research. Here, she talks about her career path and why she loves her work at St. Jude.

Tell us about your path and how you got to where you are now.

Flynn: I grew up in New Orleans, and, if you know anyone from New Orleans, you know they are very close to their family. I was really at a crossroads in life my senior year of high school, and I had several friends tell me I needed to branch out and look at schools outside of town. I went to an event that Southwestern at Memphis—now Rhodes College—was hosting in New Orleans and decided to apply.

Related: Sullivan Award recipient Dani Biggs taps into the arts to tell people’s stories at NCY’s Public Theater

All through college, I knew I wanted to be a part of the science industry but wasn’t sure how. I had a few internships that I thought were incredibly boring, and that is ultimately what helped me decide to go to medical school instead of pursuing a masters in chemistry. It was the best decision I ever made. I returned to Louisiana for medical school and eventually came back to Memphis to join the faculty at St. Jude in 1988.

Why did you choose St. Jude?

Flynn: St. Jude is an ideal place to practice medicine. Because we are primarily philanthropic and grant-funded, we are able to practice the way medicine should be practiced. It’s refreshing to have that freedom in medicine. St. Jude is the dream job! They really encourage you to do groundbreaking work.

What’s the nature of your work there?

Flynn: Until 2015, I focused on pediatric infectious disease research. I now spend 50% of my time in hospital administration and the other 50% continuing clinical research, specifically HIV infection. I really love what I do, and I like that I get the opportunity to wear different hats. That really keeps things interesting and keeps me on my toes.

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

Flynn: You know, I feel like St. Jude is really a place where everyone is accepted. There is a lot of diversity, and that is really eye-opening and helpful. But being in Memphis, you see a lot more negativity in the community. The inability to recognize racism is poisoning our society, and we need equal opportunities for all and for everyone to succeed.

If you were pressed to give one piece of advice to young people, what would it be?

Flynn: Work hard to find out what makes you happy and what you are passionate about. Then, chase that. Don’t chase money—chase happiness.

 

Sullivan Award Recipient P.L. “Roy” McCall Passes Away at 91

P.L. “Roy” McCall of Society Hill, S.C., a 2013 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award from Coker University, passed away at the age of 91 earlier this month after a brief illness. McCall, an alumnus of Sullivan Foundation partner school Clemson University, was also a dedicated supporter and benefactor of Coker, another Sullivan partner school.

In November 2019, McCall gave an outright gift of $1.2 million to Coker University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts in memory of his parents. It was one of the largest gifts in the school’s history.  The school was renamed the P.L. and Belle Wolfe McCall School of Visual and Performing Arts in his parents’ honor.

The McCall family has been a part of the fabric of Coker since the institution’s early days. Roy McCall’s father, P.L. McCall, Sr., was a member of Coker’s Board of Trustees from 1939 to 1970. McCall’s mother, Belle Wolfe McCall, was a 1915 graduate of Coker College for Women.

Related: Sullivan Foundation alumnus Frederica McClary-Myers helps jail detainees with mental illnesses start a new life

McCall and his late wife Margaret, along with his twin brother, Reaves McCall (now deceased), were financial supporters of Coker University, particularly the music program, for decades. The McCall family supported Coker’s All-Steinway Initiative, which led to the university becoming an All-Steinway school in 2017. The McCall brothers also donated the indoor track in Coker’s Harris E. and Louise H. DeLoach Center in memory of their mother, who played on the basketball team during her time at Coker.

McCall was born on October 27, 1930. He and Margaret Bryant McCall were married 52 years before she passed away. He graduated from Hartsville High School (HHS) in 1949. His class was known as the “Fabulous 49ers,” being the first to complete twelve grades. He was also a member of the National Honor Society, Boys’ Glee Club, HHS Concert Band, and HHS Marching Band.

McCall earned his bachelor’s degree in agronomy from Clemson in 1953. At Clemson, he was a member of the Pershing Rifle Drill Platoon and won a Sears Roebuck Scholarship his sophomore year. He was listed in the Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities in 1953 and served as Company C-4 commander during his senior year.

McCall attended officer’s training at Fort Benning, Ga. and went on to serve in the U.S. Army Infantry from 1954-1956. As a 2nd lieutenant, he provided basic training for recruits at Fort Gordon, Ga., and, as a 1st lieutenant, he was a member of the 506th Regimental Faculty at Fort Jackson, S.C.

Related: How Sullivan Foundation alumnus Sarah Scott discovered that special education was her calling in life

An active participant in numerous local, county and state agricultural organizations, McCall served as president of the Darlington County Agricultural Society; past president of the Darlington Young Farmers Association; president and director of the Darlington County Farm Bureau; and chairman of the South Carolina and Darlington County Agricultural Stabilization Conservation Committees. In 1987, he was elected director of Cotton Incorporated, a cotton farmers’ research and promotion company. He was a founding member of the South Carolina Cotton Board and served on the South Carolina Farm Bureau Cotton Advisory and American Farm Bureau Federation Cotton Advisory Committees. He was also a founding director of the Darlington County Historical Commission.

Over the decades, McCall generously supported both Clemson and Coker through various endowments, gifts and scholarship funds. He received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award from Coker University in 2013 for excellence in character and service to humanity.

As a Clemson alumnus, McCall, who rarely missed a Tigers football game, funded the Peter LeRoy “Roy” McCall Jr. ’53 Scholarship Endowment for students in the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Services. Additionally, he supported Clemson’s Scroll of Honor and Military Heritage Plaza, the WestZone project in Memorial Stadium and the Class of 1953 Golden Anniversary Scholarship Endowment and donated to the President’s Fund.

Robyn Dartnell Heffernan: “Opportunity Should Not Depend on Your Zip Code”

By Meg Sinervo

Robyn Dartnell Heffernan received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award from Sullivan Foundation partner school Coker University in 1997. Since then, she has dedicated her life to serving others as an educator and advocate for social equity, with a particular focus on underserved populations. In this conversation, she reflects on her career so far and her passion for overcoming challenges facing the public schools system in South Carolina.

What do you remember most about receiving the Sullivan award? Were you surprised? What do you think you did to receive the award?

Heffernan: I was surprised. I knew nothing about the award beforehand. I believe I received it because, in a few situations, I made the hard decisions that were the right decisions.

Catch us up on your life and career since graduation.

Heffernan: I now work for the South Carolina Department of Education as a literacy specialist for the Office of Early Learning and Literacy. I travel to underperforming high-poverty schools to work with leadership and classroom teachers as a reflective practitioner and literacy coach. I began my career as an educator working with emotionally disabled students and then traditional classes for 17 years before becoming a school-based reading coach. Then I began presenting to teachers at state and local conferences, which led to my current job.

Related: Jarred Belcher: Listen to your enemies to better understand their fears and suffering

Tell us about your current life of service to others.

Heffernan: I am part of a fellowship group called FiA, Females in Action. I’m now the president of our local chapter. We meet to run, work out and pray at 5 a.m. two mornings a week, and we help local community projects by raising funds through races and collections.

What is the social issue that matters most to you today?

Heffernan: Equity. South Carolina has more than 60% of their students performing below grade level in literacy. Of that 60%, it’s disproportionately representative of our African-American communities. The inequity I have witnessed is unacceptable. Opportunity should not depend on your zip code. The answer to this situation is awareness. We need more conversations with diverse leaders, legislators, community partners, parents and students. I believe that, once you are aware of the inequities of communities, you can never remove that lens. My vision has been forever changed because of the conversations I have been a part of. Surrounding myself with diverse friends and colleagues has led me to a richer life with a wider perspective. I can never not be aware, and it’s my mission to patiently and consistently bring awareness of the inequities that the children and adults in our own communities live with every single day.

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

Heffernan: You don’t have to be ready or set to go. Sometimes you just need to go because the journey is where you become set and ready.

Lainie Sowell: Making Sure No College Student “Falls Off the Bridge”

By Meagan Harkins

Kathryn “Lainie” Sowell, who received the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award from Converse College in 2013, serves as an example that we can trust life to guide us one day and one step at a time and that trusting the process will eventually lead us to a better reality than we could have imagined.

Sowell grew up in rural Concord, N.C., then moved an hour-and-a-half away to Spartanburg, S.C. to attend Converse. Prior to that, she had served as a peer helper for a special education instructor during her senior year at high school. “I really fell in love with working with those students, which is what led to me to [pursue] it in college,” Sowell said.

Even so, she started out as a music major. In high school, she said, “Band was, like, my identity.” That changed, however, during her second semester at Converse after she took some special education courses and fell in love with the department. She graduated from Converse with a double major in psychology and intellectual disabilities.

“I was obviously influenced by my 18 years prior to going to Converse, but if I think about who I am today as a leader, staff member and mentor, everything came from Converse,” Sowell said. “It was such a wildly impactful experience.”

Lainie Sowell enjoys some fishing on Henry Hagg Lake in northwest Oregon.

Women Leading Women
Converse is an all-women’s college, Sowell noted, and leadership development—“taught through a lens of women’s voices and women’s empowerment”— is at the core of everything. “It was important for me to test my voice and leadership in an environment where I didn’t feel like I had to play into gender roles or that I had to be a certain type of woman,” Sowell said. “It was nice to be in a culture of women leading women and empowering women.”

At Converse, Sowell spent much of her time empowering others through the Bonner Leaders Program. She committed a whopping 300 hours to community service during her sophomore year, followed by 450 hours in her junior year and another 450 hours as a senior.

Coincidentally, in her first year with Bonner Leaders, she was assigned to an adult care facility for people with disabilities. During the following two years, she volunteered at the university’s service-learning department. Sowell said these weekly hours shaped her identity and purpose. Dedicating so much of her time and energy to helping others without receiving financial compensation, she was reminded of her parents’ service-minded lives—not through any particular organization but simply by showing up for people who needed them. “It was modeled a lot for me,” Sowell said.

Related: Frederica McClary-Myers: Helping Jail Detainees With Mental Illnesses Start a New Life

She also led on the Honor Board at Converse, which educated students about the honor code they signed at the start of every school year and adjudicated cases when the code was violated. Sowell served as a representative, then vice chair and, finally, the board’s chair. “I really enjoyed that, which ultimately led into my career later in life,” she said.

With all those accomplishments in servant leadership, Sowell was a natural choice for the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award, presented to her at Converse’s graduation ceremony. “The presenter read a bio on the recipient before announcing their name, and my friends and peers around me were whispering, ‘That’s Lainie! That’s you!’” Sowell recalled. “It was hard for me to believe, up until the time they said my name.”

Her best friend at Converse had received the same award a year earlier. “I realized it was a big deal, and I felt very honored,” Sowell said. “I didn’t set out to do any of that stuff to be rewarded for it, and I didn’t know that there was any [award] like that that would recognize me.”

As a student at Converse College, Sowell devoted more than 1,000 hours to serving others through the Bonner Leaders program.

Moving into Student Affairs
After graduation, Sowell taught for two years with Teach for America in Baton Rouge, then stayed in that city to teach at Children’s Charter School. Students in her classrooms ranged from those with physical disabilities operating just under grade level to those at an 18-months-old cognitive level. “Every single student needs something wildly different,” Sowell said.

Sowell reflected on how those students treated one particular classmate who had lower cognitive abilities—only able to say “yes” or “no”—with dignity and respect. “They talk to her and interact with her exactly the same as they would interact with me,” she said. “They do not care. They have full-on conversations and engage with her. They did not see her as different than them, which is incredibly modeled behavior for the rest of us.”

“They’re dealt the hand that, in most of society’s view, is less than ideal, and they’re happier than most of us,” Sowell added. “They don’t care about things that don’t matter. All of them are such a picture of resilience and self-advocacy.”

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

Sowell eventually began working for the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators, an alternative teacher certification program. There, she trained adults to become secondary special education instructors. They ranged from recent college graduates to 60-year-olds who always had a desire to teach. “I loved working with adults,” Sowell recalled. “It was everything that I loved about K-12 but with none of the micromanaging. It was so much fun.”

During this transition period, one of Sowell’s most trusted Converse mentors, Dean of Students Rhonda Mingo, gave her some advice. Evaluating what Sowell loved about training adults for teaching certifications, Mingo suggested she enter the field of student affairs. Sowell went on to earn her M.A. in student affairs in 2017 from Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling in Portland, Ore. Along with the mentorship aspect of the teaching certificate program, the master’s degree empowered her to assist students just as Converse’s staff had once assisted her.

Lainie Sowell is now a proud Wildcat at Linfield University in Portland, Oregon.

In July 2019, Sowell began working at Linfield University in Portland, starting out with the title of Area Director for Student Success and supervising the resident advisors. Her current title at Linfield: Director of Student Care and Support. In this position, she works as a case manager for any student in need of help with, for example, mental health or bad family situations. Just as she did as a special education teacher, she creates individualized plans and connects students to proper resources.

Related: Jared Belcher: Listen to Your “Enemies” to Better Understand Their Fears and Suffering

Sparking Positive Change
Whether she’s dealing with students caught plagiarizing a paper or struggling to navigate college life in a pandemic, Sowell uses each situation to spark positive change. “Opportunities of struggle or conflict can be our biggest springboards for growth, if the right supports are in place,” she said. “I like to be the person who does not do the changing for you or tell you what to do, but, rather, that person that can walk along with you and present choices. I’m like the guideposts on the bridge. I can’t help you go across the bridge, but I can make sure you don’t fall off the bridge.”

Sowell continues to credit Converse for the trajectory of leadership and boldness that her life has taken. “I cannot think about myself and my identity without thinking about what that institution did for me,” she said. “I work in student affairs now because I want to be the person that those people were for me. I literally love college so much that I made a career out of it.”

From personal experience, Sowell knows that most students do not leave college with just a degree. The college experience builds leadership skills while encouraging goal-oriented living and a learning mindset. “If you can learn how to learn, then you can learn how to think critically and you can learn how to ask questions,” Sowell said. “That’s all you need to do in undergrad, and then you can figure out what you want to do afterwards.”

 

Frederica McClary-Myers: Helping Jail Detainees With Mental Illnesses Start a New Life

When Frederica McClary-Myers, a recipient of the 2004 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, was first recruited to Coker University in Hartsville, South Carolina, to play basketball and volleyball, her coaches emphasized that the school’s motto was “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” In McClary-Myers’ experience, “That was absolutely the case. It made the entire experience grand and personal and created such fond memories. It just really felt like home.”

Since 2019, McClary-Myers has worked as director of Fulton County Judicial Behavioral Health Services in Atlanta. There, she manages programs serving individuals involved in the criminal justice system, including Mental Health Court, DUI Treatment Court and the ReEntry Program.

McClary-Myers said mental health is often overlooked in the system. “It’s surprising to a lot of individuals that aren’t in the field, the number of individuals that are impacted by mental health issues to some capacity,” Myers said. In particular, she said, the onset of COVID-19 in 20202 “amplified some of the things that individuals were already experiencing. So I think awareness of the need to recognize and address mental health is vital to the continuation of our progress as people and beneficial for society.”

From working with those in need of behavioral health services, McClary-Myers has learned that mental health issues and substance abuse can happen to anyone at any time. “There are stressors that occur that are universal, and it just depends on an individual’s coping capacity and background as to how well they are able to maneuver and manage those stressors,” she said.

Related: Police psychologist Kimberly Miller works with through law enforcement to help the underserved

Frederica McClary-Myers chats with her colleagues in the Fulton County court system.

A Zest for Life
A native of Manning, South Carolina, McClary-Myers pursued dual degrees in psychology and sociology with a concentration in criminology. “It was a lot, and there were many sleepless nights and social sacrifices,” she said. “But it was great because those that I went to class with and organizations I was a part of were very understanding.”

She noted that going through college with such a full plate taught her the power of collaboration and teamwork. After all, she was just as busy outside the classroom. She also served as the senior class treasurer, New Student Orientation chair, Psi Chi co-treasurer and president, Coker College Ambassadors secretary, Judiciary Review Board member, Finance Committee member, and Student Development Committee member.

She was also elected to the prestigious Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges in 2003 and was named Homecoming Queen that same year.

“I think it was just a zest for life,” she said. “I’ve always been one that’s been quite interested in multiple facets of life. And the different organizations offered on campus provided opportunities to be able to learn more about different areas. It made me learn to prioritize.”

Coker University recognized her zest for life—and for serving others—with the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award. “It was such a wonderful surprise and honor when I received the award, [considering] the time that was given to present that award to me [and] to be able to hear the commendation from the faculty and staff,” McClary-Myers said. “I was very humbled by it. To me, I just felt like I was doing what I liked to do, which is learn about a lot and get involved in things. To understand that there was actually an award given for that was just very surprising.”

After the marathon race of her college career, McClary-Myers took the year after graduation to join other Coker alumni on study-abroad trips. She spent time around Europe and Korea, learning about new cultures and strengthening her sense of adulthood. “I think it was very formative for me to take that time to pause before entering the workforce.”

In 2005, McClary-Myers began attending Argosy University, working on her masters degree in clinical psychology. “I felt it was the best course to be able to help people in the capacity I wanted to help,” she said. “I’m just a person that wants to help. That’s my passion, and I feel like my purpose is to help.”

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

Frederica McClary-Myers and her family

Fighting Misconceptions About Mental Health
She’s in the right job for that. Without the services she and her team provide, many incarcerated people with mental illness and substance abuse issues cannot be safely released back into the community. According to the Superior Court of Fulton County’s website, 16 percent of jail detainees nationwide have some kind of mental illness. That figure is even higher at the Fulton County Jail—more like 20-25 percent. One-third of the jail’s detainees receive some type of psychotropic medication, and half of them receive some kind of mental health service. In short, the Fulton County Jail is the largest de facto mental health facility in Georgia.

McClary-Myers pointed to one common misconception: the idea that these individuals have moral impairments for which help is easily accessible.

In fact, the lack of awareness and resources is the most difficult part of her job. “Even though Atlanta is a metropolitan area and we do have a number of resources, there never seems to be quite enough,” she said. If education on mental health and substance abuse can be bolstered and continued, she added, particularly with the opioid crisis and instances of gun violence, she hopes rising awareness will lead to increased funding and more homeless shelters and treatment facilities.

Regardless of the limitations within the system, Myers’ favorite part of her job is helping others in a nontraditional capacity, creating alternative solutions rather than increased legal consequences that limit a detainee’s capacity to excel in the future.

She often remembers one woman, who was in her early 20s, who had a developmental impairment and arrest history related to criminal trespass and domestic violence. After they’d worked together for a while, the woman called Myers 15 or 20 times daily for guidance and affirmation. “The good thing is, we had a great rapport and working-therapeutic relationship,” McClary-Myers said. “I worked with her to build up her self-worth and her trust in herself and her own decision-making.”

That young lady went on to establish her own residence and later had a family of her own, McClary-Myers said. “Stories like that will always stick with me, of seeing the individual’s growth.”

How Sarah Scott Discovered That Special Education Was Her Calling in Life

By Meg Sinervo

In 2015, Sarah Martin Scott, a special education teacher, co-founded the Explore! Community School, which engages students in meaningful, authentic learning experiences that help them master core academic content while developing the character and social skills to become Nashville’s innovative leaders of the future. At the time of this interview, Scott, who received the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award from Converse College in 2012, was working as Explore! Community School’s director of student supports but later left to pursue her Ph.D. in special education at Vanderbilt University. Here, she reflects on her path to a career in teaching exceptional children and explains why “relationships and community can be a salve for anything.”

What do you remember most about receiving the Sullivan Award? What do you think you did to receive the award?

Scott: Even before my senior year, I remember attending graduations for my upper classmates and thinking that, of all the awards offered, the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award was the one I would feel most proud to receive because it honored the characteristics of service and leadership that are the most important to me. Because I had so many amazing peers in my class who were doing great things, I was definitely surprised to hear my name and had to pause for a minute to be sure I had heard correctly. While I like that I’ll never really know what I did to receive it, I can imagine that it may have been due to my love of special education, specifically deaf education, my role as a community advisor who loved hard on my residents, or my commitment to inclusion, both in schools with little ones and among my peers.

Who nominated you for the Sullivan Award? What was your relationship like with this person or persons?

Scott: The nominating process was kept a bit of a mystery to us as recipients, but I believe it was a panel of students and our chaplain. If it was our chaplain, I was lucky to have been his work-study student and to have joined him and another student on a conference for Interfaith Youth Core in Washington, D.C., where we discussed how to encourage interfaith dialogue among other students on our campus. He and I still connect on social media occasionally, and when he brings students to my current city, Nashville, he makes sure to invite me and other alums who live here to go to dinner with those current students to catch up and connect.

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

Scott: I am the director of student supports at a Title 1, project-based learning, restorative practices charter school here in Nashville: Explore Community School. It’s the same school that I helped get started in its very first year back in 2015 as their founding special education teacher. I have the privilege of coaching the special education teachers, paraprofessionals, interventionists and English Language Learning Specialists, while monitoring compliance for all of our students’ Individualized Education Plans, intervention plans and ELL service plans.

Even though I tried to resist it for a while growing up, I always sort of knew education would end up being my path. I didn’t love my experience as a student in grade school, and a part of me suspected that I would end up wanting to be sure that didn’t happen to other kids. I didn’t know this when I was accepted, but Converse College happened to have been the only school in the Southeast with deaf education as a specialization. After a year of trying to convince myself that I wanted to major in other things, my American Sign Language class, which I was taking to fulfill a language requirement, proved to me that special education was where I needed to be. After graduating and completing two years in Teach for America’s corps in Mississippi, my love of teaching and excitement for trying to solve the puzzle of each individual kid’s learning style was reaffirmed, and I’ve been working with students with exceptionalities since.

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

Scott: Racial equity overall and equity in school discipline practices. I’m also passionate about immigrant and refugee rights and inclusion and access for those with disabilities/exceptionalities.

What’s some advice you would give to current college students and young people in general?

Scott: Be curious and make a deliberate effort to get to know people who are different than you. Empathy is more important than most things, and it really is true that people will remember how you treated them and made them feel more than they remember what you do. Build into people, and it will always create positive results. Relationships and community can be a salve for anything.

Robert O’Hara: Creating an Inclusive Environment for College Students

By Meg Sinervo

When Robert O’Hara, then a senior at Sullivan Foundation partner school Coker University, got word that the provost wanted to speak to him about something, he got nervous. Was he in trouble? What had he done wrong? In this humorous reflection, O’Hara shares the story of how he learned he was the recipient of the 2010 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award and explains why he has built his career around helping college students find their way.

What do you remember most about receiving the Sullivan award? Were you surprised? What do you think you did to receive the award?

O’Hara: I remember it being a few weeks before graduation my senior year, and I was in the library working on final projects and papers. I practically lived there from February to May in my senior year. That’s when I received an email from the administrative assistant for the provost and dean of the faculty. The admin was letting me know that Dr. Lincoln, the provost, wanted to meet with me and that I should drop by as soon as possible.

Needless to say, weeks from graduation and the provost requesting to meet with you is almost the same as a parent cold-calling you to see what’s going on. I was running through everything I had done the past four years, trying to craft a defense if I needed it. Luckily, her office was behind the library, so I replied that I was on my way and rushed over there. I rounded the corner, breathless, and saw the admin smiling. She said Dr. Lincoln would be right with me. A few minutes—which felt like several lifetimes—later, and I was sitting in front of the provost’s desk.

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

She slid the door closed, turned and said, “Well, Robert, I’m afraid to say that you have been nominated and chosen by the faculty as the student recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award.” Had I not been so shocked and surprised, I probably would have burst into tears.

I spent time over the next few weeks thinking about what I had done to receive the award. I think the biggest factor in my nomination for the award was my inclination towards servant leadership—although not really knowing what that actually was at the time. But, throughout my involvement in college, whenever I did things, I involved a variety of people. It didn’t matter if it was inside or outside the classroom; I encouraged, pushed and helped those around me, taking the “we are more than the sum of our individual parts” approach.

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

O’Hara: After graduation, I took a semester-long break and then started a higher education/student affairs master’s program. Then I worked in Housing and Residence Life for a little over five years before going back to school full-time for my Ph.D.

Related: Police psychologist Kimberly Miller works through law enforcement to help the underserved

I chose student affairs as a way to give back to students. As a first-generation college student, I wanted to help students create lasting experiences and memories of their college years and serve as a mentor to them. Currently, as a Learning Sciences Ph.D. student [at Sullivan Foundation partner school Clemson University], my research focuses on fostering a sense of belonging and creating inclusive environments for STEM undergraduates. My fascination with how students learn and develop is the driving force that keeps me in academia.

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

O’Hara: The social issues that matter most to me today are the underlying structural, ideological and cultural systems at play that oppress peoples based on socially-constructed identities. Some examples include racism, homophobia and sexism.

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

O’Hara: Take full opportunity of the experiences offered in your education and find some failure along the way. Learn, grow and teach others. Sit in the discomfort of learning and embrace those moments of silence. But fight passionately for what you believe in and lift up others who aren’t able to fight with you. One thing I’ve learned as an adult—something that I wish I had known earlier—is how fast it all goes by. Take pleasure in the day-to-day moments.

Jared Belcher: Listen to Your “Enemies” to Better Understand Their Fears and Suffering

By Meg Sinervo

In an increasingly polarized America, Jared Belcher, a pastor at Arrowhead Church in Morristown, Tennessee, believes we need to listen to—and love—those we disagree with. Belcher, who received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Sullivan Foundation partner school Carson-Newman University in 2014, prays that we can create “an empathetic culture in which we respect our political and social ‘enemies’ and even go out of our way to help our opponents.” Here, he also talks about Asset Based Community Development, a model that encourages capitalizing on a community’s existing resources rather than relying on outside help.

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

Belcher: I was stunned! I had no idea there was even the slightest chance I might receive it, and my family and co-workers all snuck in the building to cheer when it happened. It was an incredible moment I’ll cherish forever. I cared deeply about my community and spent my free time in my undergrad years trying to help make our little town a better place, but I hadn’t really reflected on the impact—if anything, I felt I should be doing more. So, to be honored with this award was very moving.

Who nominated you for the Sullivan Award?

Belcher: I believe it was Will Brummet and Anya Piotrowski. They were running the Bonner Center at the time, and I had a great relationship with them both. They were such caring leaders, really the definition of servant leadership. They lived for community development and empowering the students on campus to be their best selves. They both have since moved to serve in other roles elsewhere, but we still interact on social media from time to time. They are wonderful people and I hope to sit down and catch up with them again soon.

Tell us about your career in the ministry.

Belcher: I work as a pastor at Arrowhead Church, and I focus primarily on organizational structure and communication. My faith is the foundation for any proclivity I have toward loving people well and making any kind of difference. It’s the method and motivation! So while I didn’t expect to eventually become a pastor when I won the award in 2014, looking back, it makes sense to me. As followers of Jesus, we are called to care for people’s spiritual and physical needs, and I’ve learned a lot about how to do that better along the way.

Related: The wonderful, wonderful life of Anne Matthews

What sort of community service projects are you involved with right now?

Belcher: I’ve continued serving our local downtown revitalization effort, which was a primary reason I won the award in 2014. I served on the board of directors until the summer of 2020. Much of that time has been spent capturing our town’s story and publishing it online and social media. In early 2020, I made a documentary about our town’s history and vision for the future, for which we won an award from the East Tennessee Historic Society. It featured the wonderful men and women who are working so hard to bring life back to this historic place. Those are the kinds of projects I have been a part of for the last decade or so.

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

Belcher: I am deeply troubled by our lack of deference and forbearance—that is, putting others first, even those with whom we may disagree. We have so many social issues that need to be worked out: racism, income inequality, climate change, sexism, gentrification, and mega-corporations, just to name a few. As long as we do not work together and listen to one another, particularly people we disagree with, we will continue our march toward chaos and division.

My prayer is that, one day, we could have an empathetic culture in which we respect our political and social “enemies” and even go out of our way to help our opponents. That’s a radical idea in these times, and again, my view here is deeply influenced by my faith in Jesus. We’ll never agree on the best solution for any issue, but if we were to be more empathetic and listen more often, I think we would create a much more united nation and more solutions would be developed.

Related: Angela Lewis: Always take the smallest apple in the pile

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?

Belcher: I was very passionate in college, which is wonderful! But I was quick to develop a worldview and slow to listen to others. The world is very complicated, and there are no magic bullets in life. When you think about economic impact, often one solution develops many unforeseen problems. That doesn’t mean you should do nothing, but I wish I had been more honest about the complexity of even good progress.

So if I could go back to myself a decade ago, I’d tell myself to listen more seriously to opposing views and try to hear their suffering, their fears. Someone might be wrong, but that has nothing to do with how I ought to treat them, and it is likely that they are seeing something that I’m missing. I’d be stern and tell myself to develop my opinions on social issues, yes, but also with the knowledge that I will always have a limited perspective. You don’t know what you don’t know, so lose the arrogance! Be honest and fight for your beliefs, but quickly learn to love everybody always.

What is one thing you are most passionate about?

Belcher: That’s a hard question! These days, I am probably most passionate about my family. I now have a wife and a son. As we find ourselves frustrated by the brokenness of the world at large, we have also realized that the most impact we can make on the world is through our own family. Teaching our son to love and respect others has become a major goal for me. My wife cares for people so well (which is how we met in college), and she teaches me that the greatest impact I can have is one-on-one, when I invest time and care into another individual. So being her partner and raising our son is my greatest passion.

In terms of community passions, I am very interested in Asset Based Community Development. It’s a concept, several decades old, which says that, rather than looking at a community’s deficits and trying to pump resources in from outside to fix it, you take inventory of ways the community already adds value to itself and others. What is there already that could be harnessed for good? Over the last few years, I’ve become very intrigued by this model because it helps to celebrate what makes a community unique rather than replacing the community with something else, as we see in gentrification. When used appropriately, it can allow a community to lift its own quality of life and develop solutions from within, without being imposed upon or replaced. We have not deployed this model well here yet, not to the degree that would really help, but that might change soon!

Angela Lewis: Always Take the Smallest Apple in the Pile

By Meg Sinervo

Angela Lewis wasn’t expecting to hear her name called out during the announcement of the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award at Alice Lloyd College back in 1983. But her post-college dedication to helping others, both in her career and in her personal life, prove that she was the right choice for the award. Here, she reviews her life of service thus far, including her commitment to making sure that no child gets picked last for a team just because they haven’t yet learned how to play the game.

What do you remember most about receiving the Sullivan award?

Lewis: What I remember most about receiving the Sullivan Award was the description and community involvement the speaker was giving of the recipient when the presentation was being made. My friend was nudging me, saying, “That sounds like you!” But I had no idea that it was being presented to me. I believe I received the award due to my involvement in the community and for always taking the smallest apple in the pile, so to speak, so others could enjoy more of the fruit.

Tell us about your career and what you do now.

Angela Lewis

Lewis: My career has mostly been in teaching, and my certified field was Physical Education [P.E.]. I have taught and used my P. E. degree in two third-world countries: Tonga (1985) and Jamaica (1991-1996). I taught English as a second language and P. E. in Tonga. I introduced volleyball to our village school and community, and I helped coach their track and field teams.

In Jamaica, I taught kindergarten and basic school at SOS Children’s Village and taught and coached the older kids in mini-tennis, netball and soccer. Now, I teach high school special-needs students in a self-contained setting at a small-town school.

In addition to teaching life skills, job skills and community-based instruction, I also teach an Adapted P. E. class that my students love! I stopped coaching volleyball and soccer after about 10 years due to injuries. When I was in seventh grade, I knew that I wanted to go into physical education. I was always an athlete, but I had many friends who weren’t athletic at all. In P. E. class, I watched kids get chosen last because they didn’t already know how to play the game. I wanted to teach kids how to learn the skills needed to play a game, even if just in a recreational or family weekend-fun setting.

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

Lewis: I am currently a Special Olympic committee member in our county as well as the Beta Club sponsor at our high school. We are involved in many community service projects, such as providing child care for parents of special needs kids during parent mentoring meetings; Relay for Life; Foster Child Christmas parties; Rivers Alive Community Clean-up; raising money for Cystic Fibrosis research; and Pennies for Patients.

The social issues that matter most to me are animal cruelty, homelessness and child abuse/neglect.

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?

Lewis: Everyone has something to contribute in life. Find your passion and make a difference. As an adult, one thing I have learned—and wish I had known earlier in life—is to have confidence in myself.