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Sullivan Scholar Sara Busaleh: Serving Others “Gave Me Hope When I Was Hopeless”

Sara A. Busaleh is the recipient of the 2019-20 Sullivan Scholarship at Sullivan Foundation partner school Berea College. In this thoughtful and moving essay submitted with her scholarship application, Sara reflects on her life in service, how she came to be involved with the nonprofit La Casita Center—and how serving others gave her hope when she was otherwise hopeless.

I always say that the best way to spend your free time is through service. I immersed myself in community service as soon as my circumstances allowed me to. I was 12 when I volunteered for the first time ever with an organization.

To give a little backstory, my dad is from Saudi Arabia and my mom is Mexican raised in the U.S. When I was 11, my parents separated, and we (my four sisters, my single mother, and myself) moved from Saudi Arabia, where I had grown up alongside my father’s family, to Louisville, Kentucky. Upon our arrival to the U.S., my family and I lived in a community house called Casa Latina with other families who were like us—with no money, no job, and no safety net. I was terrified and shocked by the fact that I never would return to my homeland, Saudi Arabia.

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Nevertheless, things got better. La Casita Center is a non-profit neighboring the house we were staying in, and the individuals there helped us with many basic necessities like clothes, food and resources to find jobs. The mission of La Casita Center was aimed at serving others, especially the Hispanic and Latino population, and was done out of pure intentions. I was so humbled to know that there are truly good people who dedicate their lives for the well-being of others, for ​my well-being.

Here we were, my family and I, afraid of our past (in addition to my parents’ separation, there were personal circumstances that put us in a risky situation when we moved) and hopeless at times. I felt like I had nothing to fall back on. Everybody in my family was going through the same emotional roller coaster I was going through. Close family friends, my teachers, and my support system were all left behind in Saudi Arabia. I was lost.

It was almost oxymoron-ish when I started volunteering with La Casita Center. For one, I was one of the recipients of the many benefits they offered. I was being helped by La Casita while at the same time volunteering with them to help others. I was inspired to become a volunteer, plus I was not comfortable enough to join any after-school activities or social groups at my new school. After school, I would go to La Casita’s office to do homework and help them sort out donated food and clothes in the designated banks and closets.

Related: “The Beloved Community”: Sullivan Award winner Alexus Cumbie’s poetry, policy and passion for changemaking

As I grew older and continued to live in Casa Latina, I became more involved with the nonprofit next door. Many of my weekends were spent in the kitchen cooking for their fundraising breakfast events or weeding the yard around La Casita Center’s office. I always get emotional when I mention my journey of starting community service because I feel like that was when I was enlightened (no hyperbole intended). I remember when large Hispanic and Latino families would come with their starving infants (some probably had been without food for a couple of days), and, for me, another child at the time, this would break my heart. These children and these families who came with nothing were my motivation to want to give all the time I could to help La Casita. I fostered a passion for community service through volunteering with La Casita and filled a void that I had when I first moved to the U.S. with compassion and an essence for humanity.


Eventually, my family and I had to move out of our temporary stay at Casa Latina and found our own space. We moved out to another part of town when I was 15. It was devastating for me to have to leave because spending my evenings at La Casita would not be so easily reachable anymore. I was losing a part of me that was dedicated to service, especially the kind of outreach service La Casita Center did and one that I was accustomed to. Regardless, I was ​not going to stop volunteering because this was what gave me hope when I was hopeless. Service was what ​made me​ when I felt broken and when I left my home in Saudi Arabia to come here in search of a new one.

Related: Meet Hailey McMahon, Berry College’s first Algernon Sydney Sullivan Scholarship recipient

If I had to feel one thing for the rest of my life, it would be gratitude. I am grateful that each day I wake up and can give back to a world that has given me more than I could have ever asked for. I work with children at local elementary schools, teaching them about global issues and empowering them to feel confident in serving this global community. At the local public library, I teach adults Spanish classes in hopes that they gain the knowledge they need to connect with the broader community.

As a recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Scholarship, my development and commitment to service will be embraced and expanded. My goal for my upcoming summer breaks is to get involved in a wider range of community service activities and to implement this as much as possible. The only obstacle that could arise, preventing me from this involvement, is having to work in order to save money for the upcoming academic years. This scholarship will facilitate my academic journey at Berea College so that service, along with academics, can become my priority. I am grateful for this opportunity to apply and would be incredibly honored and humbled to become a Sullivan Scholar.

Sara A. Busaleh is a freshman at Berea College. She has not declared a major yet, but she is on the path for a double major in Psychology and Spanish and a minor in Sociology.

Berea College Joins National Partnership to Address Racial Disparities in Rural America

Partners for Education at Sullivan Foundation partner school Berea College has joined a partnership with Save the Children, StriveTogether and the Annie E. Casey Foundation to develop and launch a first-of-its-kind collective impact effort for rural America.

Designed to address complex social issues through a collaborative approach adapted to the unique needs and interests of rural communities, the effort has kicked off in three pilot communities—Perry County, Ky., Whitley County, Ky. and Cocke County, Tenn.—with the goal of improving children’s lives from cradle to career.

As part of the collaboration, the Rural Accelerator Initiative will provide $400,000 over three years to the three pilot communities—an unprecedented $1.2 million investment of funds to rural communities to align action plans developed in each community to prioritize kids and families.

Related: Sullivan Foundation partner schools Berea College, Alice Lloyd College recognized as tuition-free work colleges

“At StriveTogether, our mission is to help communities transform how they serve children and families,” said Jennifer Blatz, StriveTogether’s president and CEO. “We know we can achieve more by working together than apart and have proof from nearly 70 communities across the country that the collective impact of organizations working across sectors can influence outcomes for every child. We are excited to bring our proven approach to this initiative and are proud to be part of a landmark effort to accelerate results for youth and families in rural America.”

Rural collective impact combines leadership development, strategic investments, local partnerships and peer learning to ensure children in rural America enter school ready, have a successful education and leave high school prepared for a career or higher education. With the support from the national partners, rural communities are working to change local systems to improve results for children, with an initial focus on early developmental milestones of kindergarten-readiness and third-grade reading and math proficiency.

Related: Berea College lead nation in on-campus sustainability efforts

“We have the opportunity to harness the expertise of national leaders in education as well as the local communities where we work, to drive progress toward positive outcomes for children in rural America,” said Betsy Zorio, vice president, Save the Children’s U.S. Programs & Advocacy. “We are grateful to our partners for their support, skills and knowledge and look forward to working together to empower communities to create a successful cradle-to-career pathway for every child in rural America. It’s our ambition to take these learnings and scale to support the nearly 2.5 million children growing up in poverty in rural communities.”

“This Rural Accelerator Initiative recognizes that transformative and lasting change in rural communities must be led by community members,” said Dreama Gentry, executive director of Partners for Education. “To do this difficult work, communities need partners who can provide the resources needed to implement change, and we are proud to support the people in rural areas who are leading the way.”

“The Annie E. Casey Foundation has honed an approach to leadership development—called Results Count—that it’s bringing to the Rural Accelerator Leadership Program,” said Shanda Crowder, senior associate at the Casey Foundation. “Participants will become more skilled at making effective and lasting changes that will help children grow up healthier and better off.”

Building on the success of StriveTogether’s work in collective impact across the country, Save the Children’s legacy of serving children in rural America, Partners for Education’s achievements throughout Appalachia, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s powerful Results Count leadership development approach, the national partners plan to expand rural collective impact into additional communities in 2020.

Save the Children works in rural communities across the U.S. where child poverty rates are high and resources are low. StriveTogether is a national nonprofit network that supports children’s educational success. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is devoted to developing a brighter future for millions of children at risk of poor educational, economic, social and health outcomes.

This article was adapted slightly from the original version on the Berea College website.

How Tuition-Free College Works at Berea and ALC

A tuition-free college education isn’t easy to find in the U.S., but if free is all you can afford, look no further than Sullivan Foundation partner schools Berea College and Alice Lloyd College.

These tuition-free colleges, both located in Kentucky, were featured in a recent article on NPR.com. The article explains how their tuition-free work-college models came into existence and how they’ve managed to thrive even as other higher-education institutions have struggled to keep tuition costs under control.

Related: Sullivan Foundation offers college study-abroad opportunity in Scotland for Summer 2020

Berea College was founded by a Presbyterian minister/abolitionist in 1855 as the first racially integrated and coeducational college in the American South. Berea went tuition-free in 1892 because so many students couldn’t afford to pay. In 1920, as NPR reports, its board of trustees created an endowment that has since ballooned to $1.2 billion. The profits from its investments help to educate low-income students, mostly from Appalachia, for free. That means students can graduate with little or no debt while getting a high-quality college education.

NPR notes that it can take decades, even up to 75 years, for an endowment like Berea’s to be able to fully fund a tuition-free college education. When Alice Lloyd founded the institution that bears her name in the early 1900s, she took a different route. For her students, free college actually meant hard work from the start, as they and their families provided the labor to build and staff the campus. Today, Alice Lloyd College boasts about 600 students, mostly from low-income Appalachian families, and 85 percent of the alumni return to live and work in Appalachia.

this photo shows a group of low-income students at one of the country's few tuition-free colleges.

Students enjoy the activities of Giving Day and Opening Convocation at Berea College, one of the country’s few tuition-free colleges.

TaLaura Mathis, who is working on her degree in biology at ALC and then plans to study dentistry, wants to do exactly that. “Where I come from, it’s very poverty-stricken,” Mathis told NPR. “I really want to help blue-collar, hard-working people that just can’t afford dentistry.”

To keep tuition free for students from Alice Lloyd College’s 108-county service area, ALC has “a decent endowment” of around $44 million, NPR reports. ALC also does a lot of fundraising to make sure new buildings are fully funded before construction even begins. Meanwhile, professors teach heavier class loads than they would at other schools and don’t receive tenure.

this photo depicts a graduate of Alice Lloyd College, a prominent tuition-free college in Kentucky

ALC student TaLaura Mathis

As work colleges, Berea and ALC both require students to work at least 10 hours a week. The Atlantic has described Berea’s labor requirements as “work-study on steroids,” with students handling everything from janitorial services to website production and managing volunteer programs. As of the Atlantic’s October 2018 article, 45% of Berea graduates had no debt, while others had an average of less than $7,000 in debt.

ALC’s website states that “no student has ever been turned away from Alice Lloyd College due to an inability to pay.” It adds that ALC “is consistently listed among the nation’s leaders in graduating students with the least amount of average debt.”

Can other schools learn from Berea College and Alice Lloyd College? It depends. NPR suggests the work college model is “best suited for smaller institutions” since it’s not always feasible to create mandatory jobs for students at schools with relatively high enrollments. However, larger schools that want to lower tuition or offer a tuition-free or reduced-tuition education “could try a hybrid of the work-college model,” with smaller working programs offered along with other forms of financial aid.

Sullivan Ambassador Cole Dutton: Championing Youth and Improving Communities

This week, we are proud to announce that the Sullivan Foundation will be hosting the first of several social media takeovers by students on Sullivan campuses. These students will spend a week talking about the changemaking happening on their campuses and showing the work the Sullivan Foundation is doing at colleges across the Southeast.

The first of these social media takeovers will be led by Andrew Cole Dutton. Cole is the founder of the NAIL Initiative, a native of Big Stone Gap Virginia, and a full-time student at Berea College. Cole also serves as a student ambassador for the Sullivan Foundation at Berea College. He is highly motivated to improve the lives of hard-working Americans, and champion the efforts of intelligent youth looking for ways to improve their communities with new and innovative ideas.

Finding New Paths

Cole says the Sullivan Foundation has helped him find new, innovative approaches to changemaking.

“The most creative ideas stem from the most childish of places. I have seen more creative ideas come from a group of high-school students than I have from organized planning meetings. The Sullivan Foundation stimulates those kinds of creativity-generating moments and champions young leaders looking to make a change on multiple college campuses.”

Making Connections

Sullivan has also played a role in building a strong network of changemakers, Cole says. The Ignite Retreat, in particular, has helped him meet fellow service-minded people.

“The connections I made in Sullivan allowed me to further develop my own skills as an entrepreneur and teach others how they, too, can be successful entrepreneurs. The connections I made with the Ignite Retreat have been an invaluable asset in my personal development and have connected me with more resources than I can count. I’ve had video calls and conferences with the people I met during the Ignite Retreat and have interacted with even more changemakers since.”

Igniting Change

Cole recommends the Ignite Retreat, which focuses on helping young changemakers find their passion and a plan to change their world, to anyone on any career path. The retreat is open to all college students, and takes place twice a year in North Carolina.

“The Ignite Retreat acts as an excellent introduction to innovation and entrepreneurship for any student on any career path. The Sullivan Foundation entrepreneurship teachings are implementable in any number of fields and are thus more applicable to students every-day lives.”

Taking First Steps

Cole launched the Next Appalachian Innovation Leaders (NAIL) Initiative, a program that focuses on getting kids in the Big Stone Gap the tools and connections they need to build an innovative community. (Keep an eye out next week to learn more about this project.)

Cole says the information he gained through the Ignite Retreat and the Sullivan Foundation helped him on his way to start the NAIL Inititative.

“After working tirelessly to found and organize a non-profit on my own, I learned quickly that what I gained from Sullivan comes in handy.”

Follow the Social Media Takeover

Cole will be running the Sullivan Foundation social media next week. To keep up with the awesome work he’s doing, follow his social media takeover on the Sullivan Foundation Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.