Non-Speaking Student With Autism Delivers Powerful Valedictorian Speech

Elizabeth Bonker delivered a powerful valedictorian speech that many at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College will never forget—and she never said a word.

Bonker, who is affected by non-speaking autism, hasn’t spoken since she was 15 months old. She communicates solely by typing and used text-to-speech software to inspire her fellow graduates to serve others, recognize the value in everyone they meet and “be the light.”

“The world,” she told them, can’t wait to see our light shine.”

Read the full text of Elizabeth Bonker’s valedictorian speech here.

Bonker is the founder of the nonprofit, Communication 4 ALL, whose mission is to “champion efforts to ensure communication is available to all non-speakers with autism.” She’s a poet, a lyricist and the co-author of the book, “I Am In Here,” which describes her journey as a non-speaking child with autism and how she found her voice without speaking aloud.

That voice rang clear and strong in Bonker’s valedictorian address.

“Today we celebrate our shared achievements,” Bonker said. “I know something about shared achievements because I am affected by a form of autism that doesn’t allow me to speak. My neuromotor issues also prevent me from tying my shoes or buttoning a shirt without assistance. I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. I am one of the lucky few non-speaking autistics who have been taught to type. That one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, enabling me to communicate and to be educated like my hero, Helen Keller.”

“My situation may be extreme,” she added, “but I believe Rollins has shown all of us how sharing gives meaning to life.”

Bonker has “spoken” at many events, including the Autism Society’s Town Hall and an Ashoka Changemakers conference. She has been spotlighted by PBS and TedMed and in the documentary film, “In Our Own Hands: How Patients Are Reinventing Medicine.”

In April, she released two songs from a 10-song album, titled “I Am In Here.” She wrote the lyrics, and the Boston-based band The Bleeding Hearts wrote and performed the music. One of the songs, “Silent Cage,” features guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

As a changemaker, Bonker is following in the footsteps of another Rollins College hero: Fred Rogers, who received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award in 2001. In her speech, she recalled a story about the beloved Mister Rogers. “When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet. It said, ‘Life is for service.’ You have probably seen it on the plaque by Strong Hall. Life is for service. So simple, yet so profound.”

Bonker continued: “We are all called to serve, as an everyday act of humility, as a habit of mind. To see the worth in every person we serve. To strive to follow the example of those who chose to share their last crust of bread. For to whom much is given, much is expected.”

“God gave you a voice,” she said. “Use it. And, no, the irony of a non-speaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me. Because if you see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet.”

UK Sullivan Award Recipients Serve Children, Immigrants and Others in Need

Riley Gaines might be most recognized for her record-setting accomplishments with the University of Kentucky’s swimming and diving teams, but her humanitarian work, especially with children, has earned her another accolade: She’s one of three recipients of UK’s Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award.

In addition to Gaines, the award went to fellow student Dean Farmer, an award-winning researcher on such topics as helping youths with disabilities find employment, and James “Jim” Richardson, the citizen award recipient and senior vice president for wealth management at Morgan Stanley.

Here’s more about the three recipients of the Sullivan Award, UK’s highest honor for humanitarian efforts.

Riley Gaines
Gaines, who hails from Gallatin, Tenn., graduated in May with a degree in human health sciences. For UK’s swimming and diving team, she is a multi-time SEC champion, conference record holder, NCAA silver medalist and record holder in six separate events at UK. She was most recently named the 2022 SEC Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

While her athletic accomplishments are unmatched, her nominator stressed that what Gaines does outside of the pool and classroom is even more impressive. She has regularly volunteered her time to serve others since coming to UK as a freshman in 2018, with programs such as God’s Pantry, Special Olympics of Kentucky, Give 10 (R.E.A.L. Read) and the Shriner’s Hospital. Most recently, she took part in the Kentucky United Telethon with other UK athletes and coaches, raising relief funds for those impacted by the Dec. 10 tornadoes in Western Kentucky. The telethon raised more than $3 million in four hours.

Related: Sustainability champion Claire Windsor earns Sullivan Award from the University of South Carolina

Riley Gaines

But Gaines says she is most moved by her involvement with Amachi Central Kentucky, a one-on-one mentoring program that works with children and teens impacted by parental incarceration. She has mentored a specific child, Kami, on a weekly basis for nearly four years.

“I think (Kami) has helped positively shape me in just as many ways as I have helped her,” Gaines said. “She has taught me self-awareness, responsibility, creative thinking and true altruism. Amachi has aimed to meet a nationwide need, and I am beholden to be a part of it. I think every person with an ethical conscience, good morals and strong character will find the ultimate satisfaction in helping others—this is the true philosophy of service to others.”

In honor of her achievements and service, Gaines was recently inducted into the 2022 UK Athletics Frank G. Ham Society of Character, one of UK Athletics’ most prestigious honors that recognizes student-athletes who show the utmost commitment to academic excellence, athletics participation, personal development, community service and career preparation.

After graduation, Gaines plans to attend dental school and hopes to become a pediatric dentist.

Related: Sullivan Award recipient Gabriel Carrilho helped bring clean water to a village in Ecuador

Dean Farmer
Dean Farmer, who calls Goshen, Ky. home, graduated with a degree in economics and a second degree in political science. He was also a student in the Lewis Honors College.

During his time at UK, Farmer’s academic and extracurricular activities have centered around service to others. As part of his involvement in the Lewis Honors College and Gatton College’s Global Scholars Program, he served as a Presidential Fellow in the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress program. Here, he conducted award-winning research on the economic impact of the H-1B nonimmigrant visa policy and how it can help increase both foreign and domestic wages.

Dean Farmer

Farmer also served as a peer coach for UK’s Financial Wellness Center, where he worked directly with students to promote financial resources and aided students facing sensitive financial issues.

Additionally, Farmer worked for the Council of State Governments, where he conducted extensive policy research on state policies helping youth with disabilities transition into the workforce. He also served as a volunteer researcher for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Louisville, where he presented research on and advocated for mental health care among marginalized communities in Louisville. He served as a volunteer tutor at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and as the director of finance and economic equity for the UK Student Government Association.

“Dean’s personal and professional records indicate that he is living the spirit and intent of the Sullivan Award,” his nominators wrote. “His humanitarian focus in his professional journey and his personal character and integrity are evident in his lived experiences during his time here at the University of Kentucky. His heart is in service to others.”

After graduation, Farmer plans to pursue a career in immigration law and continue serving those in need.

“Whether through one’s vocation, hobby, extracurricular interest, relationships, interactions or aspirations, I believe that each experience is an opportunity to serve others,” Farmer said. “After all, an immeasurable number of people in our society have some form of dire need, whether their need is due to immigration status, mental illness, financial crisis, or any other reason. For every need, there is an opportunity for service.”

Related: Future social worker and future teacher receive Sullivan Awards at Winthrop University

Jim Richardson

James “Jim” Richardson
Richardson graduated from UK in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and again in 1972 with a master’s degree in secondary education. He is now senior vice president for wealth management at Morgan Stanley.

During his time as a UK student in the 1960s and 70s, Richardson was a member of the track team, Student Government Association and Sigma Alpha Epsilon and sang in a vocal group.

“To be recognized as a Sullivan Award recipient from UK is beyond humbling,” Richardson said. “Were it not for the education and relationships that were developed at UK, I would never have found the passions that have been such an integral part of my life.”

Richardson is a long-time volunteer with the UK Alumni Association, serving as a three-term board member; president of the Fayette County UK Alumni Club; a Wildcat Society Member; UK Fellow; and a member of the 1970 Golden Wildcat Reunion Committee.

Richardson is also a gifted musician and has used his skills to serve the Lexington community, singing and playing guitar at various fundraisers and community events—including his own Golden Wildcats reunion and other UK Alumni events. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his daughter Reilly hosted concerts on Facebook Live to entertain friends and family during a time when live, in-person music was not something people could experience.

Throughout his career, Richardson has also dedicated a significant amount of his time to serving organizations that support children, including the Kentucky Children’s Hospital, where he serves on the development council. He has also served on boards for the Children’s Charity of the Bluegrass, Lexington Children’s Theatre, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Bluegrass and the Lexington Rotary Club.

In 2014, he was nationally recognized as one of three finalists for the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the Invest in Others Charitable Foundation, for his ongoing commitment to the Lexington Dream Factory, a wish-granting organization for children he co-founded with his wife Stacey.

When asked why he has committed so much time to children’s organizations, Richardson said, simply, “Time.” He added, “The most appropriate way to show love for children is to give them your time.”

And while it’s gratifying to give money, Richardson said he has found volunteerism much more meaningful. “I have been blessed over the past 40 plus years as a musician, mentor and teacher to help one child at a time or an entire organization,” he said. “Regardless of the role, the opportunity to give my time to a child has demonstrated the truest definition of love that I could describe.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the University of Kentucky website.

“Joy Surrounds Her:” Andrea Stansberry Earns Student Sullivan Award at King University

When Andrea Stansberry wasn’t helping King University win a cross-country championship and studying for her nursing degree, she was busy helping others, especially children, in their hour of need. Now she’s the student recipient of King’s 2022 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, while Dr. David Stevens, the former director of World Medical Mission, has received the community member award.

Stansberry, a 2022 graduate of King, wants to work as a pediatric critical care nurse. A native of New Market, Tenn., she was a member of King’s cross country and track and field teams for four years, helping the women’s cross country team win their fifth Conference Carolinas championship in 2021. She has been recognized for her service to Children’s Hospital in Knoxville as a longtime member of the Youth Board, and by the City of Bristol for her volunteering spirit.

Stansberry has been accepted to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Nurse Residency Program.

“Throughout her years at King, we have seen Andrea’s motivation and determination in everything she does, from her studies in nursing to her community service work and her sport,” said Chase Arndt, King’s director of student life, along with Finley Green, career services director. “Joy surrounds her, and others follow. She is a force on campus—engaging, mentoring and befriending others. She is an advocate and a leader in addition to her duties as captain and ‘team mom’ to the track and field team.”

“Andrea is fed by her love for Jesus Christ and feels responsible for sharing that love by caring for all,” added Arndt and Green. “She has helped with spiritual clubs on campus and is an example of Christian servant leadership and service.”

“Andrea has been a best friend to everyone on the track and cross country teams,” noted Brandon Ellis, King University’s head cross country and track and field coach. “She has consistently and selflessly put the needs of others before herself. She doesn’t think twice before spending hours accompanying a teammate to the hospital or being a friend to lean on in times of need. She’s balanced a heavy nursing load while setting numerous personal best times on the track. She has been a light on our team and will be missed.”

Dr. Stevens served as director of World Medical Mission, helping mission hospitals around the world and providing medical relief. He led a team that treated 43,000 Somalis in the midst of war and led medical teams to treat more than 25,000 Sudan villagers to stop the spread of an epidemic, which led to opportunities to also meet patients’ spiritual needs.

Stevens helped develop an evangelism training program that taught 20,000 healthcare professionals how to share their faith in a healthcare setting. He also helped launch a nationwide network of community-based ministries that provides on-site discipleship, fellowship and outreach opportunities for local doctors. He served as a spokesperson for Christian doctors and has conducted more than 1,000 media interviews on NBC, CNN, NPR, BBC-World Television and numerous other national outlets.

In addition, Stevens served as medical superintendent and later as executive officer of Tenwek Hospital in Bomet, Kenya, for 10 years. During his tenure there, he directed a $4 million development plan, secured the installation of an $850,000 hydroelectric plant, oversaw the start of a nursing school, and doubled the size of the hospital. The community healthcare and development programs he designed at Tenwek are currently reaching more than a million Kenyans.

Stevens is the author of “Jesus, MD” and “Beyond Medicine” and co-author of “Leadership Proverbs” and “Servant Leadership.” He received his bachelor’s degree from Asbury University, earned a master’s degree in Bioethics from Trinity International University, and is a graduate of the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He has served on the board of Asbury University, as a Fellow of the Biotechnology Policy Council of the Wilberforce Forum, and on the advisory council of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.

Additionally, Stevens served as the CEO of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA) for 25 years and now serves as CEO Emeritus. Headquartered in Bristol, Tennessee, CMDA provides resources, networking opportunities, education and a public voice for Christian healthcare professionals and students.

“Creating the mission to change hearts in healthcare and the vision to transform doctors to transform the world, Dr. David Stevens bears a legacy that will be considered one of the most influential and important in the history of Christian Medical & Dental Associations,” said Josh Rudd, assistant professor of biology at King University. “He’s committed his whole life to missions. There’s the act of service, then there’s the example. The act is vital, but the example has a life effect. Dr. Stevens has certainly made an impact on my life as I educate students at King University, and I would say he has impacted countless others as they incorporate service into their professional careers.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the King University website.

 

Rita Castañon, Jesse West Honored With Sullivan Award at Carson-Newman University

Rita Castañon and Jesse West have left such a mark on Sullivan Foundation partner school Carson-Newman University, they were both featured in a season 3 episode of the Amazon Prime series, “The College Tour.” They’re also the recipients of the 2022 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, the highest honor presented to students at the university.

Clad in his Eagles football jersey, West, a team captain, extolled the virtues of a Christian education at Carson-Newman on “The College Tour” and even led his teammates in prayer for the camera. Castañon talked about the opportunities the university offered to her as an immigrant and pointed out that she will graduate without any student debt. “It was here that I followed my passions for advocacy, mental health and accessibility to a higher education,” Castañon told the show’s viewers.

Related: Sustainability leader Claire Windsor earns Sullivan Award at University of South Carolina

Rita Castañon
A Morristown, Tenn. resident, Castañon is a political science and psychology major. A first-generation college student, she has used her time at Carson-Newman to the fullest. Beyond excelling as a student, she has sought ways to help those in need, particularly those in the local area navigating the challenges that face a large Spanish-speaking community.

As a student, Castañon has served in roles for the Student Government Association, Eagle Production Company, Gamma Sigma Sigma, the Center for Community Engagement, and a member of both political science and history honor societies: Pi Sigma Alpha and Phi Alpha Theta.

Castañon is also president and co-founder of one of the university’s newest organizations: PODER, which stands for “Pursing Our Dreams, Embracing Our Roots.” The organization reflects Rita’s own servant heart, as it seeks to empower immigrant students and promote cultural awareness. Through PODER, she met with state legislators to lobby about issues affecting undocumented college students. She obtained a prestigious internship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington, D.C., becoming one of two Tennesseans to participate in the program.

Dr. Amanda Ford, an assistant professor of history, said of Castañon, “Rita is a perfect example of the kind of educated citizen and worldwide servant-leader we are trying to help build at Carson-Newman.”

Related: Duke Sullivan Award recipients include a prison reform advocate and a defender of tenants’ rights

Jesse West
West, a religion and communication major from Palmetto, Fla., has developed a presence both on and off the playing field during his time at Carson-Newman, demonstrating leadership and servant skills.

As a member of the Eagles football team, he earned the Roy Harmon Award for exemplifying Christian values. He served as a team captain and member of the football leadership council. West is a CoSIDA All-District honors recipient for excellence in competition and in the classroom, a three-year member of the South Atlantic Conference Commissioner’s Honor Roll, and three-time Eagle Scholar.

West was also a member of the Faith & Justice Scholars Program, completing over 400 hours of community service over the past four years at Appalachian Outreach and The Store. He served as a Residence Life assistant and chaplain and on the leadership team for Baptist Collegiate Ministries. He earned the Robert and Irene Shurden Award for the Outstanding Religion Junior. And he’s a member of Alpha Lambda Delta honor society who made the Carson-Newman Dean’s List every year.

“Jesse West conducts himself with poise and a winsome grace,” said Dr. David Crutchley, dean of the School of Biblical and Theological Studies. “He is gifted but always speaks with a voice of humility and concern for others. He is mature and wise beyond his years and has mentored other students on his journey at Carson-Newman consciously and unconsciously through his life example and witness.”

Carson-Newman President Charles A. Fowler said the Sullivan Award recipients have made their professors and fellow students proud. “Their accomplishments are truly inspiring, and we are delighted to call them our own,” he said. “As a Christian institution, we are committed to helping our students become educated citizens and worldwide servant-leaders. Jesse and Rita’s servant leadership is already having an impact, and we look forward to seeing how God is going to use them.”

This article has been edited and expanded from the original version appearing on the Carson-Newman University website.

Sustainability Champion Claire Windsor Earns Sullivan Award at University of South Carolina

Geography major and avid cyclist Claire Windsor has turned her passion for creating a sustainable world into action throughout her four-year career at the University of South Carolina, a Sullivan Foundation partner school. Now her commitment to service has earned Windsor the university’s top leadership award, the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, for 2022.

Windsor was one of two outstanding student leaders to receive the Sullivan Award at UofSC. Gabriel Carrilho, a mechanical engineering major and founder of the university’s chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, also received the award.

Related: Gabriel Carrilho, Sullivan Award recipient at the University of South Carolina, helped bring clean water to village in Ecuador

A native of Travelers Rest in the South Carolina Upstate, the Honors College student founded and facilitated the university’s Student Council on Sustainability and served on both the sustainability and academics committees as a Student Government senator, where she helped pass 25 pieces of legislation.

“From my first semester at Carolina, I was determined to be a changemaker focused on campus sustainability initiatives,” Windsor said. “I translated my ideas and solutions into concrete actions once I joined Student Government as a senator. I collaborated throughout campus to transform my legislation into the changes we envisioned.”

Related: Duke University Sullivan Award recipients include prison reform advocate and defender of tenants’ rights

Windsor’s sustainability efforts extend to her research, including working as an assistant for Professor Conor Harrison’s research project investigating the history of energy utility regulation and the role of financial analysts on utility decisions. She also won a Magellan grant to investigate the city of Columbia, S.C.’s climate protection history and an Honors College research grant to investigate Richmond, Va.’s clean energy planning and legislation for a case study comparison with Columbia.

Claire Windsor

On top of all that, Windsor also received the Pastides Sustainability Award and the Outstanding Achievement and Student Triumph Award at UofSC.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Windsor described her excitement about the many accolades she piled up on graduation day. “What a memorable day!” she wrote. “I already felt honored to receive the President’s Award and Outstanding Senior Award. But, then President Pastides started describing the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, and I could not hold back my smile and excitement. I am beyond honored to have received the university’s highest undergraduate honor for the most outstanding female senior!”

During her time at UofSC, Windsor has worked to help her fellow students make better environmental—and health—choices. She has mentored many individuals through the Sustainable Carolina Leadership Program and Eco Reps, which both promote sustainability across campus.

As a member of the Lux Cycling Team, she competes at the highest level in races around the country, including the USA Cycling national competition, and also founded and served as president of the Gamecock Cycling and Triathlon Club, where she helped train cyclists and triathletes for races across the Southeast.

Related: Shayla Roberts-Long: Using your power to create accountability for climate change

“Through my leadership and passion for an improved student experience and impact, I became a voice for change in advisory committees and student leadership roles,” Windsor says. “For example, my advocacy and collaboration led to more bike racks and repair stands on campus.”

Additionally, she is a member of Omicron Delta Kappa, Sigma Delta Pi and Phi Beta Kappa honor societies.

“Throughout my four years, I fulfilled my potential as a leader and changemaker by connecting with other leaders, determining my goals, and accomplishing lasting change on campus,” Windsor said. “As I reflect on my experiences, I know that I will leave behind a legacy of advocacy and leadership for a more sustainable future.”

This article has been edited and expanded from the original version appearing on the University of South Carolina website.

Duke Sullivan Award Recipients Include Prison Reform Advocate, Defender of Tenants’ Rights

Since arriving at Sullivan Foundation partner school Duke University, Liyu Woldemichael, a senior majoring in public policy studies, has been guided by her passion for social and environmental justice, especially as it relates to prison reform. And that passion has earned her the 2022 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, one of Duke’s most prestigious student honors.

The award also went to Duke Law student Amanda Joos—coordinator of a project that has helped many Durham tenants understand their rights and avoid eviction in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the non-student Sullivan Award, given to an outstanding Duke community member, went to Sam Miglarese, deputy chief administrator with the Duke Office of Durham and Community Affairs and the instructor of a course for undergraduate students called the Durham Giving Project.

The awards recognize one graduating senior and members of the faculty, staff or graduate student body from Duke University or Duke University Health System for outstanding commitment to service. After reviewing this year’s Sullivan Award nominations, a selection committee recommended the 2022 honorees to the Office of the Provost.

Liyu Woldemichael (photo by Stephen Schramm)

Liyu Woldemichael
Woldemichael was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and raised in Montgomery, Alabama. During her four years at Duke, Woldemichael has been a member of the Baldwin Scholars program, worked on DukeEngage projects exploring environmental issues, interned with League of Conservation Voters and the Southern Environmental Law Center, and served as a student employee of the Franklin Humanities Institute.

She’s also been a leader of Duke’s chapter of the NAACP, serving as president and organizing testing programs for HIV and other diseases, leading voter registration drives, bringing in guest speakers and connecting students with community service opportunities.

Related: Ignite Retreat attendee Hebron Mekuria develops business plan to bring children’s books to her native Ethiopia

Woldemichael’s research focus is on prison ecology, which confronts the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental justice. According to the Franklin Humanities Institute, mass incarceration “has resulted in a 500 percent increase in our prison population due to a tough-on-crime rhetoric that shifted policy over the past 40 years. This alarming expansion of the prison-industrial complex has led to an unregulated, overcrowded [prison] system increasingly concentrated in geographically isolated areas.”

Woldemichael has organized prison advocacy campaigns in the Durham County Jail, and her work with the NAACP resulted in connecting around 300 people there with absentee voting ballots and stimulus payments.

“As a woman of color, she has been immersed in justice and equity causes and is a thoughtful yet demanding activist,” said Colleen Scott, director of the Baldwin Scholars. “We have seen Liyu’s transformation from potential to action. Her work is significant. She is significant.”

Amanda Joos (photo by Stephen Schramm)

Amanda Joos
Described as “an extraordinarily generous member of the Duke Law School community,” Joos has lent her sharp mind and boundless enthusiasm to a range of worthwhile causes.

Prior to arriving at Duke, Joos earned a math degree and toured as an opera singer. As an energetic member of the Duke Law School community, she serves on the boards of her law journal, the Transactional Law Society and the Moot Court Board. She’s dedicated more than 400 pro bono hours to the Civil Justice Clinic, Veterans Assistance Project, Fair Chance Project and the Health Care Planning Project.

Related: How Duke University helped 175 minority- and women-owned businesses survive the pandemic

Additionally, she has helped Duke Law faculty run a weekly eviction advice clinic for Durham residents facing housing challenges and helped clients in need through the law school’s Pro Bono Program. The clinic is staffed by four to five students from either the Civil Justice Clinic or the broader student body. According to an October 2021 article about the clinic, Joos earned a paid internship as the Eviction Advice Clinic coordinator. “I’ve had the opportunity to develop our interview intake questionnaires, where we get to learn more about the clients and really become familiar with the Emergency Rental Assistance Program,” Joos said at the time. “Now, I’m there every week to answer student questions and keep things running smoothly for the three hours that we hold the clinic. It’s exciting to see students’ confidence increase weekly as they work their way through the questionnaire and assist the community.”

Stella Boswell, assistant dean for the Office of Public Interest & Pro Bono, said many students volunteer for student-led and independent projects. But, she added, “It is rare for students to even come close to Amanda’s level of volunteerism. She volunteered with four separate projects during her first year and has continued to expand upon her engagement this academic year.”

Sam Miglarese (photo by Stephen Schramm)

Sam Miglarese
Since joining Duke in 1999, Miglarese has served as an energetic, friendly, knowledgeable and compassionate connection between Duke University and the Durham community it calls home.

His work with the Duke-Durham Partnership, Duke-Durham Campaign, and other initiatives from the Duke Office of Durham and Community Affairs strengthen the bond between the university and the wider community. That’s resulted in long-standing partnerships with organizations working to improve affordable housing, education and health for Durham residents. He’s also connected Duke students with the Durham community by co-directing DukeEngage from 2007-19 and advised more than 15 community-minded student organizations over the years. His undergraduate course, the Durham Giving Project, has taught students about issues facing Durham and how they can play a role in social change.

Outside of Duke, Miglarese serves on boards of Student U, the Bennett Place Historical Site and the Miracle League of the Triangle. He’s also given his time and expertise to the Walltown Ministries and the Rotary Club of Durham, while serving as an associate pastor with Durham’s First Presbyterian Church.

“He has embodied Duke’s mission to ‘seek to engage the mind, elevate the spirit, and stimulate the best effort of all who are associated with the university; to contribute in diverse ways to the local community, the state, the nation and the world; and to attain and maintain a place of real leadership in all that we do,’” said Vice President for Durham and Community Affairs Stelfanie Williams.

This article has been edited and expanded from the original version, written by Stephen Schramm, appearing on the Duke University website.

Shayla Roberts-Long: Using Your Power to Create Accountability for Climate Change

For students at Assumption High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Louisville, Ky., community service isn’t exactly performed on a volunteer basis. It’s built into the school’s Christian mission. Fortunately, Shayla Roberts-Long, soon to be a sophomore at Sullivan Foundation partner school Berea College and a recent Ignite Retreat attendee, needed little coercion. She took to it like an eagle takes to flying.

She was right in her element.

As high schoolers, Roberts-Long and her friend, Katelyn Johnston, spent hours picking up trash in their neighborhoods, but there was always more to be done. They soon brought in other students to help and founded Clean4Change, a nonprofit focused on sustainability and taking action on climate change. As they look to grow Clean4Change, Roberts-Long brought the concept to the Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat, held April 1-3 in Staunton, Va., and won 3rd place in the event’s pitch competition.

Related: Ignite Retreat’s Hebron Mekuria develops business plan to bring children’s books to her native Ethiopia

Majoring in Peace and Social Justice Studies at Berea, Roberts-Long has big plans for Clean4Change. Meanwhile, she and Johnston hope to inspire other young changemakers across Kentucky—and the entire U.S.—with a Virtual Town Hall meeting taking place at 8 p.m. (ET), April 25. Here, she tells us more about her own roots as a changemaker, Clean4Change’s origin story, and how she hopes to see it grow into a larger movement in the future.

Q: Can you tell us more about Clean4Change? How did it get started and why?

Roberts-Long: I started Clean4Change with my co-founder Katelyn Johnston [a soon-to-be sophomore at Western Kentucky University]. We started this group out of inspiration from the organization Lead4Change. We started working on Clean4Change in the second semester of our junior year at Assumption High School, and then we launched our group a year later, in our senior year [during COVID]. Katelyn was one of the only people I saw outside of my immediate family and vice versa. We lived very close to each other and before we started Clean4Change, we were picking up trash together in our neighborhoods. We always had fun together and were successful, but we realized that we would spend hours picking up trash, disinfecting, and sorting through it to recycle what we had gathered. We needed more people to really clean up our community, and thus, Clean4Change was born. Since then, we have found funding, are an official nonprofit, and gather more members along the way.

Q: Clearly you are passionate about the environment? How did this passion develop in your life?

Roberts-Long: I would credit my love for the Earth to my high school and the teachers I had in school. I was raised in a family that cares about the Earth, but it wasn’t talked about. My extended family owns a farm in Kentucky, and we all take pride in it, but I never remember having discussions about being stewards of the Earth—partly because for a number of years I lived in Orange, Texas. My high school really blossomed a love of service to the Earth and to people on the Earth.

Assumption required every student to have a certain number of service hours, so in a way, I was at first forced to help my community, but then I found the deep value in doing service work of all kinds. I volunteered whenever I was able, was incredibly active in my school, and in my senior year, formed Clean4Change, with Katelyn by my side. In my junior year, I was chosen to be a Fair Trade Ambassador with Just Creations, a fair trade store in Louisville, and that blossomed my love for fair trade and for equitable jobs and living wages for all people.

Related: Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat breaks record with largest-ever group of changemakers

Q: What exactly does Clean4Change do, and what are your goals for it?

Roberts-Long: Clean4Change started with a focus purely on park cleanups. We were concerned with doing that direct-action work because that was what Katelyn and I had been doing on our own. But we started to turn into an organization that wanted to address a lot more than that.

We have a strong focus on education and making information accessible to people everywhere. Learning about climate change, or about how to be sustainable, is a really overwhelming topic. Our Earth’s future depends on the actions that governments, companies, and countries make within the next few years, and, to put it frankly, that’s scary. It isn’t hopeless, though. Clean4Change wants to teach people that we have the power to hold these power structures accountable.

Every Sunday, we post a “Sustainable Sunday” on our Instagram—a small post on any topic concerning the environment. We do research, make it pretty, and then share it with others. We also host events that teach people how to contact legislators, bring trash cleanup supplies, and encourage a connection with nature. We hope to connect with other organizations and plug into programs they are offering to create a network of support where we can make real, tangible change.

Our ultimate goal is to help people by helping the planet. Humans, mostly vulnerable communities who don’t contribute very much to the world’s greenhouse gases, are being hurt by climate change (and other environmental harms) constantly. Hurricanes are worsening, high levels of pollution are contributing to higher asthma rates, cities are sinking, and the list goes on. Climate change is a human issue, and we want to address climate change aggressively to help the Earth and the people on it.

Q: Tell us about your upcoming Virtual Town Hall.

Roberts-Long: This will be our very first Town Hall! It will be on Zoom on April 25 at 8 p.m. ET. The topic is how individuals can be sustainable, so we will be teaching ways to live sustainably, as well as addressing the fact that climate change is not our fault. Individual people living their lives normally aren’t the biggest polluters—it’s huge companies and the extremely wealthy owners of these companies who are contributing to the pollution.

With this Town Hall, we hope to ease the guilt that people may feel about our worsening climate and encourage hope for the future by giving people creative ways to be sustainable. Not only will some of these actions—composting, gardening, creating a no-mow lawn—lower one’s carbon footprint, but it may give them a fun hobby, too! We aren’t environmentalists who believe in blaming people for living in a society that forces them to pollute in their everyday lives. We simply want to work with the leaders of this society to change this cycle.

Click here to sign up and attend Clean4Change’s free Virtual Town Hall on April 25. 

Q: Will Clean4Change be a career for you? How do you want it to grow in the coming years?

Roberts-Long: If I can find a way for Clean4Change to be my career, I absolutely will. It’s my passion, and I never get tired of working on it. If I’m not able to make a living through Clean4Change, then I will be working with some other nonprofit or activist group. Until then, I would love to continue to see it grow.

Followers are huge—it isn’t just about the members that have jobs to do in the organization, but it’s also important to have social media followers and people who are committed to coming to events. As I said, a good chunk of our work is based on education through social media, and if no one is following us, we have no one to educate. Within the last few months, we have been growing pretty rapidly. We keep getting new members, and that’s really exciting. We are always looking for more people to be a part of our team and contribute any time or talents they can.

Q: Climate change just keeps getting worse, and many of our political leaders don’t seem to care. From your perspective as a young changemaker, how do we solve this problem of poor leadership and inaction? And what role will the next generation play?

Roberts-Long: Part of why we focus so much on education is to educate ourselves. We’re young people, and we don’t know everything. Doing our research on different topics related to climate change is our way of learning as much as possible so that we can share that information and make changes with the knowledge we have gathered.

I think that the role of this next generation in the fight against climate change is holding leaders accountable and making them listen. For so long, governments have pushed aside the issue of climate change, and now, the people most vulnerable in the world are looking climate change in the face. This issue is a hard one to solve, and Clean4Change is still finding its place in the legislative side of addressing climate change. One thing is for sure, though: We’re going to fight hard for our planet and all the people that inhabit it.

Q: Finally, can you tell us about your Ignite Retreat experience and how it helped further your goals for Clean4Change?

Roberts-Long: My Ignite Retreat experience was amazing. I haven’t been to an event anywhere near that since before the COVID pandemic, and more than anything, it helped me find the extrovert in me again. It was just the environment that I needed to be in, filled with ambitious young people finding their place, their voice, and their people. I was able to meet so many amazing changemakers and a lot of great coaches that have helped me with my nonprofit even after the retreat. I hope to return again and continue to learn all I can.

While I was there, I received funding for my nonprofit, and I learned a lot about how to be successful in running a nonprofit like mine. For example, I learned the importance of personal connection, especially over social media. I learned more about how to talk with and about communities suffering from any injustice, and I learned so many more skills along the way. My retreat experience was truly amazing.

 

Hebron Mekuria Develops Business Plan to Bring Children’s Books to Her Native Ethiopia

From tales of hamburger-loving dinosaurs and cats with crooked tails to “A Frog Ate My Sandwich” and “How to Catch a Mermaid,” there’s no shortage of quirky, colorful books for American tots and toddlers. Not so in Ethiopia, an African nation of 115 million, where nearly half of the population can’t read or write.

Hebron Mekuria, a sophomore majoring in engineering at Eastern Mennonite University, wants to change that. And her idea and presentation for a social impact business addressing the problem won 1st prize in the pitch competition at the Sullivan Foundation’s Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat, held April 1-3 in Staunton, Va.

For Mekuria, literacy in Ethiopia is a personal issue—that’s her native country. For her part, she’s not only highly literate, she’s also a published poet and has served as copy editor for several school papers. She’s even learning French. But Mekuria knows that illiteracy and poverty are inextricably linked, which means many Ethiopian children face an uphill struggle to overcome the difficult circumstances into which they’re born.

Related: Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat breaks record with largest-ever group of changemakers

Mekuria’s passion for helping the people of her native country made a big impression on her fellow Ignite Retreat attendees and helped her capture the $300 top prize in the event’s pitch contest. “We love working with students like Hebron who are actively making a difference in their communities,” said Spud Marshall, the Sullivan Foundation’s director of student engagement and leader of the retreat. “Her peers selected her project to receive funding to take the next step and bring her idea to life! We are thrilled to offer her both financial support and mentorship as she gets started.”

Ethiopia is a nation with a rich cultural history, a land where great civilizations flourished and mighty kings ruled over vital trading routes that linked the Roman Empire to the Middle East and India. Today, the country is mired in poverty and subjected to massive droughts and other natural disasters, but it’s fighting its way back to global prominence and boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, according to the Borgen Project.

Early education will be key to Ethiopia’s future, and Mekuria wants to make sure young children there have access to the same kind of reading materials that many American kids take for granted. It’s an idea she has been mulling over for a long time, she said.

“Many toddlers and preschoolers in America, as I’ve observed, have little picture books and board books that help them practice reading and develop an early reading culture,” she said. “From my conversations with other folks, many said that these resources were available to them in their mother tongue growing up. This isn’t a privilege that kids in Ethiopia, my home country, have.”

Hebron Mekuria shares her business idea with a fellow Ignite Retreat attendee.

At the Ignite Retreat, Mekuria pitched an idea for a company that creates reading resources for Ethiopian preschoolers, specifically in the Amharic language. “Although there are 80-plus different languages in Ethiopia that all share this problem, Amharic is my first tongue and the country’s working language, and I would love to combat this issue from a place of familiarity,” she said.

If anyone can do that, it’s Mekuria. She’s a 2020 Yoder/Webb scholar and honors program student at EMU who dedicates much of her free time to helping children. The service-minded changemaker has tutored kids, volunteered at orphanages and led Sunday school classes, according to an article on the EMU website. She is particularly interested in kids’ emotional, social and psychological needs. “Right now, caretakers focus much on the physical needs of children and do not realize how much power they have to also shape the minds of their children,” she said in that article.

Related: Ukraine-born Sullivan alumnus helping organize relief aid for his country

During the three-day Ignite Retreat, Mekuria attended two different tracks focused on social entrepreneurship: the Project Track on Saturday morning and the Problem Track that afternoon. “I felt like I got different things out of them,” she said. “The Project Track session was helpful in letting me identify what aspects were important in my business. For example, I identified how important customers and a venue were. The Problem Track … was really helpful in teaching me how to look for team members and what to look for.”

The retreat also put her in touch with more than 100 fellow changemakers from colleges and universities across the American South, all of whom share one ambitious goal: to build a better world. Folks like that aren’t easy to meet in everyday life, Mekuria noted. “Often, visionaries might find themselves in communities that don’t appreciate their drive and their dreams. Most college students feel uncomfortable around those who are angsty to challenge the status quo and to change the world. I have a feeling that Ignite was filled with many of these students who were excited and confident about changing the world in one aspect or another. Because of this like-mindedness, Ignite felt like such a safe space to verbalize our dreams, our plans and our grand goals that we know we can achieve but nobody else might have believed in in our regular setting.”

“I felt like that was the kind of environment that would nudge out the best in anyone and help students not be scared of their big dreams,” she added. “I really have no words for how much validation and bravery the retreat gave me to go after my dreams.”

Mekuria said she hopes to return for the next retreat, taking place October 7-9 in Asheville, N.C. “I absolutely want to come back for the next one!” she said. “I want to grow my ideas more and feel empowered and motivated. Next year, though, you best believe that I will bring a van full of friends with me!”

Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat Breaks Record With Largest-Ever Group of Changemakers

The Sullivan Foundation moved down from the mountains of North Carolina and into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley for the Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat, but the atmosphere was just as vibrant, attracting the largest cohort of changemakers in the history of the event.

The event, which ran April 1-3 at the Staunton Innovation Hub in Staunton, Va., brought together 107 young people with a passion for changemaking, community leadership and social entrepreneurship. The weekend was split into three workshop tracks designed to meet each participant where they’re at and help them to get where they want to go next. The tracks included:

Personal Track: For those who wanted to better understand their skills and passions, build their confidence and explore the mindset of a social entrepreneur.

Problem Track: For those who had a specific issue or problem they care about but were unsure as to how they want to go about contributing to solutions.

Project Track: For those who had a project, venture or campus initiative they have been thinking about and were ready to take action on.

Additionally, the retreat’s faculty/staff development agenda featured two sessions: “Building Resilient Faculty Leaders” and “How to Run Experiential Workshops.” The faculty leadership workshop was led by Nell Devito, director of the Vantage Point in Mary Baldwin University’s Office of Personal and Professional Development, and Dr. Jody Holland, associate professor of public policy and leadership at the University of Mississippi. Reagan Pugh, who co-led the Ignite Retreat with Sullivan Foundation Director of Student Engagement Spud Marshall, also spearheaded the experiential workshops session.

Related: VentureSouth Oxford, new angel investor group for Ole Miss supporters, holds launch-and-learn meeting April 22

Marshall said the retreat’s young changemakers were eager to break free of the constraints imposed by COVID-19 and get back to doing what they do best: working together to build a better, more equitable world through social entrepreneurship and innovation.

“After navigating lots of social isolation over the past two years because of the pandemic, all of our participants were hungry to build meaningful relationships face-to-face,” Marshall said. “The energy in the room was electric as folks had a chance to share what was on their heart and open up about the challenges they’ve been navigating these past few years.”

Catherine Briley, a student at North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, N.C., said the retreat’s workshops and exercises helped her discover her own untapped powers as a leader and innovator. “My favorite part was writing a letter to my future self and writing positive comments on sticky notes for others,” she said. “I loved reflecting and also appreciating everything I learned about people in such a short amount of time.”

Like so many Ignite Retreat attendees, Briley came to the event as part of a journey of self-discovery. “My biggest takeaway is that I am capable of pursuing my passions,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to do something great and change the lives of others, but I never thought I would be able to do that. I have been so encouraged and inspired by those at the retreat, and I look forward to pursuing my passions.”

Timon Jones, a student at Lees-McRae College and star basketball player, echoed Briley’s sentiments. “This experience really opened my eyes to growth in all aspects of life—self-care, business and mental health.” What was his favorite part of the retreat? “The whole thing, honestly,” he said. “It was so fresh.”

Related: How Ignite Retreat speaker Sanah Javani overcame alopecia and learned to love her natural self

For his part, Marshall loves the little moments where friendships blossom and meaningful conversations bring people together.

“Each year, a highlight for me is watching folks connect one-on-one in the nooks and crannies of the retreat,” Marshall said. “This year, it meant folks talking about their mental health while engaged in a game of foosball, or a few students who had just met each other talking about the social ventures and nonprofits they wanted to create while getting ice cream down the street from our venue.”

“Although the content from the workshops is valuable,” Marshall added, “hands down the most memorable parts of the weekend are when someone feels like they are being fully seen—when they are able to follow their curiosity and get to know someone for how they want to be known, rather than how they might otherwise be labeled or traditionally perceived. At the end of the day, participants simply want to connect as their authentic selves. That’s what impacts people.”

The change of scenery was refreshing, too. Past retreats have taken place in remote mountain settings in North Carolina. “Unlike our typical gatherings, which take place in a retreat center in the middle of the woods and around campfires, this retreat allowed participants to explore the gems of Staunton,” Marshall noted. “From the incredible facilities of the Staunton Innovation Hub, which served as our home base throughout the weekend, to Mary Baldwin University students inviting everyone to attend a step dance performance and party on Saturday night, this year’s location allowed students to connect in completely new ways.”

The spring retreat was just the first of many events planned by the Sullivan Foundation for 2022, as Pugh keeps the momentum going with smaller, more intimate sessions taking place at the foundation’s individual partner schools. “Moving forward, we will be taking the energy from the retreat on the road with our Roadshow program throughout the upcoming fall and spring semesters,” Marshall said. “Schools are encouraged to reach out to Reagan if they’d like to have Sullivan visit their campus and rally excitement to attend an Ignite Retreat.”

Meanwhile, Marshall and Pugh are planning to head back for the hills again this fall, with the next Ignite Retreat scheduled for October 7-9 in Asheville, N.C.

And, according to Jones, that event’s attendees can expect to leave feeling reinvigorated and empowered to turn their ideas into reality. “This opportunity changed me by just giving me that confidence in my voice and encouragement to produce my ideas,” he said.

The Adventure Begins! Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat Kicks Off April 1

More than 100 college students from across the American South will choose their changemaking adventure and embark on a life-altering journey of self-discovery this weekend as the Sullivan Foundation’s Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat kicks off April 1 at the Staunton Innovation Hub in Staunton, Virginia.

The event, which runs through noon on Sunday, April 3, will bring together young people with a passion for changemaking, community leadership and social entrepreneurship. The weekend is split into three tracks designed to meet each participant where they’re at and help them to get where they want to go next. The tracks include:

Personal Track: For those who want to better understand their skills and passions, build their confidence and explore the mindset of a social entrepreneur.

Problem Track: For those who have a specific issue or problem they care about but are unsure as to how they want to go about contributing to solutions.

Project Track: For those who have a project, venture or campus initiative they have been thinking about and are ready to take action on.

The Ignite Retreat will be led by Spud Marshall (pictured above with a past attendee), an avid serial entrepreneur in the social innovation field and the Sullivan Foundation’s director of student engagement, and Reagan Pugh, an experienced facilitator who delivers workshops and keynote speeches on personal effectiveness and leadership development around the country.

Marshall and Pugh will be joined by a diverse and highly accomplished group of dynamic, positive and fun-loving social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders with a gift for motivating and inspiring young people. This year’s coaches include:

Jasmine Babers, creative strategist for the Day One Agency and publisher of Love Girls magazine, which tells the stories of “everyday girls” and shines a spotlight on social issues that impact the lives of girls and young women.

Read our profile of Jasmine Babers here.

Brennan Lewis, an activist for LGBTQ equality and former Fellow-in-Residence, Regional Manager for Peace First, where they led the organization’s peacemaking programs in the U.S. and Canada.

Read our profile of Brennan Lewis here.

Sanah Jivani, the founder and CEO of the Love Your Natural Self Foundation, community engagement manager for Generation Hope in Washington, D.C., and creator of the International Day of Self Love. She was also named one of 12 Social Media Warriors Who Restored Our Faith by MTV in 2016.

Read our profile of Sanah Jivani here.

Chase Philip, principal consultant with the Randolph Consulting Group, which focuses on coalition-building around a myriad of issues and influencing positive change in communities.

Jordan Bowman, executive director of Journeymen Triangle, a mentoring organization that teaches emotional intelligence to middle-school and high-school boys, and cofounder of the Pledge My Check website, which encouraged people in financially stable positions to donate all or part of their stimulus checks to help those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The website raised $311,000 and earned national media attention.

Yolanda Shields, CEO of Yes Builds, a global consulting and training firm, and an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and business management at Shenandoah University. Shields is the author of several bestselling books, including “Letters to Our Sons: A Mother’s Journey—Raising Sons to Become Men With Character and Courage,” and “Entrepreneurship Is a Mindset, Not a Storefront.”

Read our profile of Yolanda Shields here.

Josh Campbell, an award-winning playwright, poet, educator, consultant and facilitator from Philadelphia. He has worked with a wide range of underserved communities, from homeless families and teens to incarcerated youths, new immigrants and English language learners.

Read our profile of Josh Campbell here.

Alexis Taylor, ESG strategy lead for Indeed.com and a global shaper for the World Economic Forum. She has been recognized by the U.S. State Department, Global Entrepreneurship Network, World Economic Forum, and the Misk Foundation as a leader in empowering people through entrepreneurship.

Several of this year’s coaches have attended or facilitated past Ignite Retreats and keep returning because they relish the opportunity to inspire others—and to be inspired—to lead positive change and make a real and lasting difference in communities. “This isn’t my first retreat, so I’m lucky to know what I have to look forward to,” said Jasmine Babers, who will lead the Problem Track. “I was drawn back because I know the magic that happens during this event and how special these young people are, and that alone keeps me coming back again and again!”

Brennan Lewis, who will guide students through the Project Track, hopes students will “come with an idea or existing initiative and leave with some awesome ideas for how to grow, scale, deepen their work, or solve some of their toughest challenges.”

“Most of all,” they added, “I want students to leave with a sense of optimism and curiosity as they continue their school and social entrepreneurship. I hope to share some of my learnings and ideas, particularly for project design and implementation, but mostly I want to have great conversations with some kickass young people.”