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.”

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

“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.”

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

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.

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

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.”

Related: Rollins College alumnus creates safe haven for families impacted by AIDS

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.”

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.

Campbell University Grad Shelley Varner-Perez Focuses on Spiritual Care Outcomes for Patients

Shelley E. Varner-Perez
Campbell University
2005 Sullivan Award Recipient

For Shelley E. Varner-Perez, a 2005 graduate of Campbell University and recipient of the Sullivan Award, faith is central to her life as a spiritual care researcher. We caught up with her to learn more about her life since graduation.

What did the Sullivan Award mean to you?

I remember being very surprised by the honor. I received special recognition at graduation, including my family being invited to a luncheon and having photos taken by a professional photographer. This was a huge honor. My grandfather was able to be in attendance, and this held additional meaning since he did not have the opportunity to complete high school but was present for me to graduate college with distinction.

Who nominated you for the Sullivan Award? Are you still in touch with that person today?

I believe my professor and department chair nominated me. I worked as his student worker/student editor. We have stayed in touch via email and social media. He is still very supportive.

Tell us about your career and what you do now?

I combined my interests in religion, community service and the humanities to become a spiritual care researcher. I earned a Master of Divinity and served as an associate pastor in a church setting, then as a chaplain in Veterans Affairs health care before receiving a Research Fellowship to pursue a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology. Now I work in an academic health center and collaborate with various researchers to learn more about spiritual care outcomes for patients, families and staff. My role has been especially interesting during COVID-19.

Are you still involved with community service or community outreach?

I volunteer with my church, and I provide research support to a community outreach project in the academic health care system where I work. I find community work engaging and meaningful. I believe the intersection between health care and faith groups can be strengthened to everyone’s benefit.

True Romance: Alice Lloyd College Grads Reflect on Decades of Teaching Kentucky’s Youth

By Meagan Harkins

A single brass bell rang for recess every day at Dorton Elementary School in Dorton, Ky., where the voices of Georgia Belcher and her fourth-grade students could be heard echoing through the hallways for years. Georgia’s lessons still live on for countless students from her 42-year career in education, which began in a little one-room schoolhouse in eastern Kentucky in the 1930s.

Georgia’s daughter-in-law, Lois Belcher, dreamed of being an international missionary but stayed in Kentucky to raise her family, serve her church and work as a librarian. She was often heard singing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” to her students visiting the library. “Instead of going off to far places to be a missionary, she made her mission field here,” Johnny Belcher said of his mom, noting that her daily actions exhibited the “sense and purpose” of Christian faith.

Related: Sullivan Foundation, Alice Lloyd College celebrate 50-year partnership

Lois Belcher’s light kept on shining through another generation, down to Johnny and his wife, Mary Belcher, both Sullivan Award recipients and Alice Lloyd College (ALC) graduates who have been inspired by their family legacy of treating people with kindness and respect.

Mary grew up with four older brothers—“rough and tough boilermakers,” as she described them—while Johnny was an only child from a family of educators. When Johnny blew out the 19 candles on his birthday cake on Jan. 24, 1993, he made a wish. “My wish was a prayer, a sincere desire in my heart,” Johnny said. “It was that God would give me someone to love.”

Johnny transferred that semester of his freshman year to ALC, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, in Pippa Passes, Ky.. His friend Stephanie immediately sought to set him up with Mary on a date, but Johnny was reluctant, thinking he was simply being used for a ride since he was the only one with a car. But he quickly realized that he had met the true love he had been praying for.

On their Jan. 26 movie date, Mary was struck by Johnny’s clear intentionality during the car ride. They went on a follow-up date to Dairy Queen the next day, and the couple was engaged by August. Johnny prepared a spreadsheet for Mary’s father to reassure him that they would be able to finish school and afford their financial responsibilities. They were married on Dec. 26, 1993.

Johnny and Mary Belcher married within a year of meeting each other at Alice Lloyd College in 1993.

A Good Team
The Belchers made a good team from the start. ALC is a work-study college, so they were always paired together in work roles as students. Eventually, both were also paired as teaching assistants with their professors.

In 1997, the Belchers sat in ALC’s Campbell Arts Center for Honors Day, waiting for the Algernon Sydney Sullivan and Mary Mildred Sullivan Awards to be presented along with various leadership and scholastic awards. “[The Sullivan Award] was, in our eyes, one of the more prestigious awards,” Mary said, due to its emphasis on servant leadership and modeling of Christian values.

The event’s host, Dean Wallace Campbell, explained that this was the first time the Sullivan Awards would be given to individuals in the same family. Johnny and Mary assumed he meant a brother and sister. When their own names were called, they looked at one another in shock.

Related: Alice Lloyd College, Berea College recognized as tuition-free work colleges

“It’s one of those moments in your life that’s a highlight,” Johnny said. “It is something I would never expect and something we have cherished. It helped motivate and perpetuate us to be that kind of [service-minded] person, but, more importantly, that kind of couple. Receiving it together reinforced our team.”

The Belchers adamantly insist that they don’t know why they received the Sullivan Award, other than for their daily acts of service. They joke as to whether or not one would have received the award without the other.

Setting High Expectations
Upon graduating, the Belchers began teaching in Kentucky’s public schools, working down the hallway from one another for 24 years. Many students interested in engineering and medicine spend their after-school time in Johnny’s classroom studying calculus and physics. Johnny admitted he has high expectations for his students, but he never wants to keep a student from succeeding, frequently offering retakes on assessments to give them another chance.

Mary remembered two specific girls Johnny tutored daily prior to an exam. As they exited the exam after weeks of studying, they said, “Mrs. Belcher, this is not Mr. Belcher’s fault. He did all he could do, but we failed. It’s all our fault.”

“Now, how many times do you have kids, when they fail, not blame it on the teacher?” Mary asked.

There was another student who stayed after school every day for tutoring, since three out of his seven class periods were instructed by Johnny. “We kinda adopted him,” Mary said of the aspiring engineer. Johnny agreed. “He and I got very close because he spent so much time with me [over two years],” he said.

Johnny and Mary Belcher both received Sullivan Awards as seniors at Alice Lloyd College.

Years later, Johnny received a photo of that same student, now an engineer, boarding his employer’s private jet. “That was a proud moment,” Johnny said. “You can destroy a child’s confidence in those classes. With him, I was always playing that line of trying to keep the expectation where I knew he would need it to succeed once he went off [to college] but trying to help him get there.”

Mary took the same approach in the classroom. “I always struggled to maintain high expectations but also provide support and be good to people,” she said.

Related: Alice Lloyd College professor leads program to help food-insecure children in Knott County, Ky.

She recalled one of the meanest students she ever taught. Twenty years later, she saw that same student at Kmart. Mary was nervous as she approached her, but the former student embraced her, saying, “Mrs. Belcher, I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I think about you so much, and I so wish my daughter had you as a teacher,” the student went on to say. “I tell her all the time that she needs a good dose of my seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher.”

Guided by Faith
The Belchers said their Christian faith serves as their daily compass for decisions and as a motivator to love their neighbor well, whoever that person may be. “We’re all searching for purpose to some degree; if we’re not, we eventually feel very empty,” Johnny said. “Faith gives us that purpose.”

Working in rural Appalachian communities, the Belchers witness an ongoing cycle of poverty. “Poverty can become a way of life,” Mary said. They’ve seen too many students who lack confidence in their ability to succeed and end up falling into the cycle. As educators, the Belchers believe their role is to encourage students to explore new horizons and show them what is possible. “We feel that education is a key that can unlock a lot of doors for kids,” Mary said.

Johnny and Mary with their daughter, Sarah, when she was a baby.

The Belchers presently serve their county’s public schools through administrative positions focused on supporting teachers. They work with the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), an organization serving more than 50,000 students and 3,000 educators in 22 school districts in eastern Kentucky. Many of these districts are impoverished, with more than 90 percent of the students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. The KVEC provides assessments and accountability initiatives for these districts as well as technology roll-outs.

Finding humility through non-direct interaction with the people they serve, the Belchers place a high value on demonstrated care for their community in any capacity. “It may be that you’re not born there, but if you live there and work there, that’s your community, and we all have an obligation to help make our community better,” Mary said.

Then, Johnny and Mary chimed in together: “Your service,” they said, “doesn’t have to get you in the newspaper.”

Papa Viva: Rollins College Alumnus Creates Safe Haven for Families Affected by AIDS

By Meagan Harkins

With the world in a frenzy from the mysterious HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Westchester County had the third largest rate of HIV infection in New York. Affected parents especially struggled during the summers as they skipped medical appointments and caring for themselves while tending to their kids who were home from school. To create a respite for these families, Camp Viva,  an annual sleepaway camp tucked away in southeast New York, was born.

“Viva” is the Latin term for “life,” notes Tony Lembeck, a founding volunteer for Camp Viva and a 1979 Sullivan Award winner at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College. “It’s all about living,” said Lembeck, who’s also a real estate broker in Savannah, Georgia. “It’s all about life.”

Related: Rollins College remembers 2001 Sullivan Award recipient Mister Rogers

Opened in 1994, Camp Viva was the first HIV-focused family camp in Westchester County and the second in the state. “The whole family was affected by somebody’s infection,” Lembeck said. Putting adults in cabins together, away from their children, not only provides a little breathing room, but also allows friendships to grow beyond AIDS as a common experience.

Children are strategically placed with one another by age group, partially for fun, but also to learn about separation. In those early years, a family unit did not always last with an AIDS diagnosis, as parents often died after one or two summers at Camp Viva and their children entered foster care or went to live with other relatives. “Coping with the impending separation was a very important product of what we achieved,” Lembeck said.

Tony “Papa Viva” Lembeck reads to young campers during a rest period at Camp Viva.

“AIDS and HIV were not discussed at all,” he added. “This was just camp and was run almost exactly as a traditional summer camp runs. Kids learned they could have fun and make friends away from their parents, and, unfortunately, this became a very important life lesson.”

Camp Viva has been a safe haven for families dealing with HIV ever since, a place where they don’t have to face discrimination or hide their health diagnosis. Campers and volunteers alike are treated the same, as if they all face the same health issues. “Just knowing they could be loved, that changed peoples’ lives,” Lembeck said. “We have documented evidence, conversations with people who, once they spent one summer at Camp Viva, stayed on their medicine longer, even if it didn’t make them feel well, because they wanted to be healthy enough to come back to Viva so they could give their kids another summer of camp.”

A Friend and Mentor
Lembeck, who grew up in a predominantly Jewish community in New York, discovered his love of summer camps as a child attending Camp Tomahawk in New Hampshire. There, he started out as a camper and later became a counselor, color war general and head of the tennis program.

He moved to Florida to attend Rollins College in the 1970s for tennis and the warm weather. “I became who I am because I went there,” he said. “People can really find themselves at Rollins because it’s a small college.”

Lembeck spent his afternoons working in the school bookstore and recalls the day when a certain man on a tour of the campus stopped him for a conversation. Lembeck was surprised when that man, Thaddeus Seymour, later became president of Rollins College and remembered their brief meeting.

Related: Green is the new black at Rollins College

From then on, Seymour affectionately referred to Lembeck as his “first friend,” Lembeck said. “Thad was just a regular guy that had been the president of Wabash College, and before that he was the dean of Dartmouth College. He made it very clear to me that there was a side door to his office. I didn’t need to go through the entryway.”

Lembeck used that door on several occasions. “It was [a matter of having a very important person make me feel nine feet tall,” noted Lembeck, who stands 5’4.

Seymour was a magician, drove an old Volkswagen Beetle, and rode his bike to work. Lembeck, who played guitar and wrote music, invited Seymour to be his opening act prior to local shows on several occasions. Lembeck also became friends with the Seymour family, even escorting Seymour’s daughter to her birthday dinner at Apple Annie’s.

Tony Lembeck on graduation day at Rollins College

Lembeck considers Seymour his greatest mentor, someone who helped him build up his confidence and navigate failure. “A good mentor makes somebody understand that failing at something doesn’t mean failing at life,” Lembeck said. “Mentoring is one of the most giving things that a person can do because it shows an individual that someone else believes in them.”

One of Lembeck’s greatest college achievements was helping to form Rollins College’s Jewish Student Union. “When I started college, it was the first time I was in the minority,” he said. The Union’s primary event was a campus-wide Seder, a dinner during Passover commemorating the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. The first of its kind at Rollins, Lembeck went to the Beanery each year prior to the dinner to meet with the head chef, taking the opportunity to symbolically kosher the kitchen by cleaning one pan together. Their inaugural event brought in 15 students. By Lembeck’s senior year, more than 100 students joined the celebration.

At the event, Lembeck sat at the head of the table with Seymour by his side. “He saw it as an imperative not only that the campus was nondenominational, but that everybody in the community was treated equally,” Lembeck recalled. “Nobody’s better, nobody’s worse.”

Related: How Rollins College will encourage its students to serve their communities in 2020-21

It was Seymour who nominated Lembeck for the Sullivan Award in 1979. “It is one of the big surprises in my life,” Lembeck said. “It was a very proud moment to be able to receive such an honor in front of my parents. It was a shock.”

“Perhaps the award came to me because Thad Seymour and I philosophically believed in openness of equality, that everyone should be the same,” he added.

The community fostered through the Jewish Student Union grew and evolved and into the Rollins Hillel, an inclusive, pluralistic campus organization that allows students from all backgrounds to celebrate, explore and deepen their connection to Judaism.

At the end of each summer session, Camp Viva holds a ceremony for graduates of Viva University.

A Circle of Inclusiveness
After graduating from Rollins, Lembeck earned his law degree from the University of Miami. But he soon recognized that practicing law meant “too much time behind a desk.” He then entered the family textile business, followed by several years in the theatre business, and, with the guidance of a mentor, real estate.

Early on in his real estate career, Lembeck also became associate director of Camp Cobbossee, a boys’ sleepaway camp in Maine. He eventually partnered in the camp with the owner, who happened to be Lembeck’s former counselor at Camp Tomahawk. When the AIDS epidemic exploded, one of Lembeck’s former campers at Camp Tomahawk began working with a group of 20 governmental, medical and social service agencies to develop Camp Viva. He asked for Lembeck’s creative assistance in developing programming for the new camp. The rest is history.

Everything Lembeck and his team do today at Camp Viva has meaning, including starting every morning together in a circle to represent inclusiveness. Lembeck, known as “Papa Viva,” even leads a high-energy hokey-pokey dance at 7 a.m. from the circle’s center.

“It’s magic,” he said, of seeing campers and volunteers relishing the freedom to just relax and be goofy. “Half of them don’t even know my name is Tony. There are 60-year-old people who only call me Papa Viva.”

Related: Rollins College ranked No. 1 college in Florida

Attendees participate in six daily periods of activities, including sports like tai chi, swimming and boating, or simply sitting by the lake to read or taking part in group discussions or games. Among fun electives, adults also can choose between educational courses, high ropes, arts and crafts, cooking lessons, medicine-related classes and support groups.

One of the more recent additions to the programming is Viva University for adult campers. At the week’s start, participants are given a syllabus and choose classes based on their own passions and interests. They receive “credit” for these courses, and completion leads to a commencement ceremony. With the “Pomp and Circumstance” theme playing, individuals receive their diplomas in a ceremony that holds great significance for the “graduates” of Viva University.

Many of the adult campers did not complete high school, Lembeck said. During the first year Viva University was offered, just 50 percent of campers signed up and 80 percent of those graduated. They now proudly enjoy 100 percent participation of adult campers and a 100 percent graduation rate. “Everybody buys into it,” Lembeck said.

“I can’t even put into words the satisfaction of watching adults, whether they be a 30-, 40-, or 50-something-year-old man or woman, holding up their Viva diploma and knowing that they achieved something, even symbolically, that had otherwise not been possible,” he added.

Aside from graduation, Lembeck’s favorite activity is the annual talent show: Viva Viva Little Star. “I’ve cried so many times with pride and joy, seeing overly shy people getting onstage for the talent show,” he said. “Half of them have never performed before, but to hear the audience cheer for them, even if they don’t hit one note on key, is what Camp Viva is all about. We call it the Love Bomb.”

“Watching campers and volunteers alike, who may have come to camp not knowing anyone, hugging people like they were raised as siblings after just one week—you can’t put a price on that,” Lembeck said. The freedom of the Viva environment allows campers to let their guard down and step beyond their usual boundaries. Watching a child who’s afraid of the water muster up the courage to jump into the lake is one example of the daily little “sparks” that might change how a camper lives the rest of his or her life.

Volunteers welcome a new group of campers to Camp Viva.

Fighting Stigma and Inspiring Lives
“Early on, an HIV infection was more likely a death sentence,” Lembeck said. With the advent of antiretroviral therapy, it’s now considered a chronic illness, but the resulting medical issues cannot be discounted. Negative impacts include diabetes and heart- and lung-related issues. “It is no more important than diabetes, multiple sclerosis or cancer, but it’s no less important,” Lembeck said.

In the camp’s early years, more than 307,000 AIDS cases had been officially reported, with the actual number of infections estimated to be close to 1 million. Today, an estimated 35 million people are living with HIV worldwide. The death rate has significantly dropped because of the growing number of drug therapies available.

While the medical severity has lessened, the stigma of AIDS has persisted, Lembeck said. “In the ‘90s, it was a stigma you wore on your forehead, and people would stay away,” he said. “Nowadays, because more and more people are living with HIV, there is a different reality. However, there is still a social ostracization that requires a safe haven.”

“The importance of Camp Viva has a lot to do with the esteem and the strength that we give them to live their lives,” Lembeck continued. “They get off the bus, and people are cheering for them and showing them the Love Bomb they all come to know. From the moment the campers arrive, they know that there are people out there who don’t think ill of them.”

Related: Rollins College teaches sustainability beyond the classroom

Lembeck recalled a camper around his age back in 1994, Camp Viva’s first year. She was extremely sick at the time. Through sheer determination, loving support and the right medicines, she is still alive today and has come to camp every summer, eventually bringing her daughter and later her granddaughter. The woman is at full strength on some visits while physically struggling in other years. But the promised abundant life and friendship she has found at Viva is a bright light that has kept her going for 27 years and counting.

Lembeck also recalled bringing his own young daughters to camp one summer in the late 1990s and sending them to bunk with kids their own age. One of the young campers had been born to an HIV-positive mother, and the virus had been passed to her. She faced a life expectancy of about five years, and her mother died young. But the girl surpassed all expectations, was raised by her grandmother, and kept returning to camp for years. Today she is 32 years old, Lembeck said, with a family of her own and an almost zero viral load, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine.

Lembeck said he hopes these stories of friendship can help dispel preconceived notions about people with HIV and make the public more receptive to others’ experiences. “The most important thing anybody can do is listen,” he said. “The most important thing anyone can do when listening is to realize everybody’s experiences are different.”

To learn how you can get involved with or provide financial support to Camp Viva, contact