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Syracuse University announces recipients of 2007 Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Heroes Awards
Syracuse University announces recipients of 2007 Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Heroes AwardsJanuary 12, 2007Kelly Homan Rodoskikahoman@syr.edu
The Syracuse University Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee has selected the recipients of the 2007 Unsung Heroes Awards. The awards are presented to members of the SU and greater Syracuse communities who exemplify the spirit, life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., but who are not widely recognized for their efforts.
This year’s recipients are Fayetteville-Manlius High School senior Daniel Blanchfield; SU junior John Dau; Margaret Charters, SU professor emerita; Wayne O’Connor, retired Syracuse City School District administrator and director of Syracuse Choice; Mark Mondanaro, superintendent of the LaFayette Central School District; and the Poverello Health Center, a service of the Franciscan Northside Ministries — accepting the award are Sister Dolores Bush, OSF, and Sister James Peter Ridgeo, OSF.
The recipients will be honored during the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner on Saturday, Jan. 20, in the Carrier Dome. The celebratory dinner will include an evening program and a keynote address by Chris Abani, a Nigerian writer and associate professor at the University of California-Riverside.
Below are the award recipient stories.
Daniel Blanchfield: Making a difference in his church and the community
Fayetteville resident Daniel Blanchfield, a senior at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, is a student leader who has spearheaded numerous efforts to raise funds for locally based nonprofit organizations, including Francis House, High Esteem’s Camp Goodwill, and Camp Good Days and Special Times. He is also a youth leader at Immaculate Conception Church in Fayetteville.
As the first president of the Francis House Youth Auxiliary, Blanchfield works to raise money for Syracuse’s Francis House, established in 1991 by the Sisters of St. Francis to provide a home and support for people with terminal illnesses. He became involved with the organization after watching the volunteer experiences of his grandmother and aunt.
In 2005, Blanchfield built on his interest in haunted houses to construct one at his home as a benefit project that took in $400 for the organization. He spent countless hours planning and building the project. In 2006, he planned a more extensive, three-night haunted house with the Youth Auxiliary and members of his church’s teen group. The project took almost 200 hours for Blanchfield to train participants, plan and construct in his 1,700-square-foot garage. The event raised $3,000 for Francis House and was featured in local media.
During fall 2003 and 2004, Blanchfield raised funds for High Esteem’s Camp Goodwill, which provides summer residential camping programs and year-round activities for children and young adults with physical disabilities and special needs. He volunteered on the construction and execution of the organization’s “CreepyCamp” haunted house fundraiser.
He also participated in a dance marathon through F-M High School to benefit Camp Good Days and Special Times. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving the quality of life for children, adults and families whose lives have been touched by cancer, sickle cell anemia, HIV/AIDS or violence.
“Dan enjoys the friendship of many, is a great leader among his peers, and has managed to achieve success in his many endeavors to help not-for-profit agencies in this community,” says Sister Kathleen Osbelt, OSF, founder and executive director of Francis House. Osbelt nominated Blanchfield for the Unsung Heroes Award.
At Immaculate Conception Church, Blanchfield is in the teen group and takes part in teen activities. He volunteers at church functions and works at Vacation Bible School and in the church rectory. Through his church, Blanchfield participates in charitable projects, including collecting money for the teen group’s annual “Souper Bowl” fundraiser each Super Bowl Sunday to benefit the Samaritan Center, an interfaith program that provides hot meals for those in need. He also helps prepare and deliver food to the Samaritan Center.
At his confirmation, Blanchfield and his best friend were selected from their class of 79 students to deliver the homily at five scheduled masses. The teens spoke to the congregation about how they applied the lessons they learned in confirmation classes to their experiences in community service.
“Community service has become a natural way to connect my love of seeing people have fun and enjoying themselves with my desire to help people hands on,” Blanchfield says. “I believe raising awareness about local nonprofit organizations benefits both the recipients and the local community.”
Blanchfield will attend Niagara University next fall to pursue a major in tourism and destination management. He says he hopes to someday run a ski resort or theme park, where he will be able to continue to see people enjoying themselves. He also plans to continue his involvement in community service at college.
John Dau: Making life better for those left behind
In his first 28 years, John Dau had life experiences that few people living in America could understand or imagine. Born in Duk (pronounced “Duke”) County in southern Sudan, he left his family and village as a boy in 1987 to avoid famine and being forced to fight for the army in the civil war that had broken out. He joined other young boys, who became known as the “Lost Boys,” in a dangerous flight from the country and eventually settled in the United Nations’ Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
Some of the Lost Boys made it out of Kenya; some did not. Dau was one of the lucky ones and immigrated to the United States in 2001. Rather than reveling in the comforts that American life affords, Dau set out on a mission to make life better for those left behind. He enrolled in Onondaga Community College to begin his education and worked up to four jobs to send money home to his family in Sudan.
Now studying public policy in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences, Dau founded the American Care for Sudan Foundation. With money raised through the foundation and the help of his church, First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles, Dau plans to build the Duk Lost Boys Clinic. More than $180,000 has been raised for the project so far, and church volunteers will travel to Sudan to begin work on the clinic in the coming months.
Dau’s generosity and determination to make a difference in his homeland have earned him the 2007 Unsung Heroes Award in the Syracuse University student category.
The opportunity to come to America was something that Dau could not believe until it actually happened in summer 2001, when more than 4,000 “Lost Boys” were given approval to move to the United States. During the search for his name among those going to America, Dau connected with a documentary film crew and would become one of three “Lost Boys” featured in the award-winning National Geographic documentary “God Grew Tired of Us,” which will open in select cities on Jan. 12. Dau also wrote a memoir of his experience by the same name, which will be released on Jan. 16.
Dau was brought to Syracuse by the InterReligious Council and sponsored by First Presbyterian Church in Skaneateles. In his first few days in the United States, Dau was bowled over by the fact that individuals drove their own automobiles (especially women). The grocery store also provided an overwhelming experience — from the automatic doors to the abundance of food to the fact that a whole aisle contained nothing but food for pets.
Just more than a month after Dau and the other “Lost Boys” arrived in this country, the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred. “We thought that America was the safest place we could be, and we thought we were being followed,” he says.
“We later realized it had nothing to do with us, but this is what it is like to live in terror.”
Dau settled into his new life and was able to relocate his mother and sister to Syracuse in 2004. Even though his life was now filled with family, his adopted church family in Skaneateles, school and work, Dau still felt something was missing. “When I came to America I was helped greatly by many people,” Dau says. “I don’t want to be a dead end. There are people who need help now. How should I take the help I received in America and turn it into something to help others?”
Dau established the Sudanese Lost Boy Foundation of New York, aimed at raising money to help other Lost Boys with needs such as tuition and medical insurance and to send money back to their families in Africa. Even with this accomplishment, Dau felt he needed to do more for the people back home.
So he established the American Care for Sudan Foundation, which has collected more than $180,000 in donations. Dau says more funds are needed to purchase medical equipment and other necessities to outfit a clinic.
Dau is excited when he talks about the impact the clinic will have on his village. “Currently, the sick have to be carried 75 miles to the nearest health services,” he says. Especially important to Dau is the impact the clinic will have on children. Right now, no vaccinations are given to children for diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and measles. One room at the clinic will be dedicated to the administration of vaccines.
The clinic will also cover pre-natal care and provide birth records. “All of the `Lost Boys’ have a Jan. 1 birth date, as there is no record of the actual day we were born,” Dau says. “We will be able to give children their own birthday.
“In 2001, I was given the opportunity to live a good life, and I want to use the rest of it to change the lives of others for the better,” he says. “That is better than any personal gain.”
Margaret Charters: Children are our future
In fall 1995, Margaret Charters had recently retired as director of the consumer studies department in SU’s then-College for Human Development. She was ready for a new challenge, and her church — Park Central Presbyterian — was looking for a way to reach out and serve the community.
Charters connected with Syracuse’s Dr. King Magnet School, the closest public school to the church and the school that two of her own children had attended, and she began reading with first- and second-grade students. The goal was to help children lagging in reading skills to get on their appropriate grade level and learn to love reading. Charters now coordinates the program and has been instrumental in helping it grow.
Charters was the lone volunteer throughout that first fall, working with one teacher. In January, two more people volunteered. Gradually, the program grew to include about 30 volunteers. At first, the volunteers were all members of Park Central Presbyterian. Then, in order to add diversity to the group, they reached out to Delta Sigma Theta, SU’s African American women’s business sorority. Later on, they also partnered with a University women’s group. Having seen the good results, all the first- and second-grade teachers at Dr. King now work with the group.
Charters was nominated as a 2007 Unsung Hero by Carol S. Decker, an acquaintance of 30 years, retired reading teacher and former reader in the program. “She gives enormous energy to Dr. King School and supports the community in many ways,” Decker says.
The volunteer readers meet with two different children per week, after lunch on Wednesdays and Thursdays. They read with the child for about half an hour. Depending on the child’s reading skills, either the volunteer reads to the child or the child reads to the volunteer. Most of the children can decode words but need to work on the fluency of their reading.
“The kids now see themselves as readers,” Charters boasts. The school’s reading teacher agrees, commenting on the major attitude change among the children about reading.
A measure of how seriously Charters takes this work: When teachers began asking her to work with children who had serious reading problems, she felt she did not know enough to help them effectively. So Charters went back to school, earning a master’s degree in reading education at SU in December 2004 at the age of 80. “It shows her love of learning and her dedication to doing her best and wanting to be more effective when interfacing with the staff,” Decker says.
“It’s very satisfying, both for the adults and for the children,” Charters says of the program. “The adult readers have the experience of getting to know the children and getting to know the school system.” Charters adds that she has a great concern for the youth of the city: “I consider them our future.”
The program continues to develop. New this year is a lending library for first- and second-graders, who are not allowed to take home books from the school library. “This has been very successful,” Charters says.
She also supports the community in other ways, including serving on the boards of Cooperative Extension, Consumer Credit Counseling and United Way, as well as with the state 4-H foundation.
Wayne O’Connor: Helping at-risk kids make better decisions
Longtime Syracuse City School teacher and administrator Wayne O’Connor may have had one of the shortest retirements on record. The day after he retired from the district after 33 years of service, he began a program aimed at helping and supporting at-risk city students to make better academic and life decisions that will serve them well beyond high school.
O’Connor is director of Syracuse Choice, a program for struggling middle- and high-school students in the Syracuse City School District (SCSD). Begun in summer 2003, Syracuse Choice helps students take responsibility for their future by providing counseling through youth advocates who connect with program students every morning to make sure they are going to school, going to class and staying out of trouble. O’Connor and the youth advocates make themselves available to students just about any time — including weekends, evenings and during school vacations — to provide encouragement. O’Connor knows each child in the program and often personally picks up and brings home children who don’t have rides.
The success of Syracuse Choice, funded by community partners and donations from the business community, is seen in its results: Every one of the 44 middle school pupils who completed the program last school year passed into the next grade, even though more than 81 percent of them were failing or in danger of failing when they started the program. In its first year, Syracuse Choice served only middle school pupils, but as students moved into high school the program followed them. This year, it serves 20 high school and about 90 middle school students.
Syracuse Choice began as an effort to steer high-risk middle school pupils from gangs and the violence of their neighborhoods. O’Connor notes that the program design initially replicated the CHOICE program that began a number of years ago in Baltimore. Then-SCSD Superintendent Stephen Jones asked O’Connor if he would consider directing the program. O’Connor said yes, feeling the need to still be a part of the lives of the young people of Syracuse despite his retirement.
“The first steps we made were to determine who were the children we would work with,” says O’Connor. “Our focus became SCSD middle school students who were making poor choices regarding their behaviors, both in and outside of school. These behaviors were putting these children in harm’s way in terms of academic deficiencies, leading to dropping out in the near future, gang activity, violence, unhealthy sexual activity, etc.
“We then established quantifiable student outcomes to address,” he says. “We recognized that the only true way to know if the program was successful was to look at student outcomes rather than program `outputs.’ This program had to be completely about helping these young people.” Syracuse Choice keeps daily data on students’ attendance, behavior in school (referrals to the office, suspensions, violent infractions, weapons-related infractions and placement at alternative settings), behaviors outside of school (gang affiliations, curfew violations, arrests,drug and alcohol use), and a special focus on academic progress (grade-point average, courses passed, promotion to next grade).
In developing the program, O’Connor hired youth advocates to support these students and track their progress. “Over the years, we have been extremely fortunate to have hired some wonderful, compassionate and very hard-working advocates to work with our youth,” O’Connor says. “Our first year, we worked with 27 middle school youngsters, 38 the next year, 62 last year. And this year we are up to 90, including high school students.”
A former SCSD student himself, O’Connor was inspired to begin Syracuse Choice by the kids. He says: “I had worked as a teacher in the SCSD, as vice principal, principal and as area superintendent. I love the young people in Syracuse. They are intelligent, talented, creative and caring children who truly want to be successful. Each child has expressed the same goals to me — graduation from high school and then college. These dreams should not become realities for only the wealthiest and most fortunate in our community, but rather should be realistic goals for all children.”
Larry Elin, associate professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, says that O’Connor’s extraordinary dedication to these students, counseling them in both academic and life issues, has helped many young adults become more energized and inspired to succeed in school. “He is everywhere at once and sets the pace for everybody else,” Elin says. “He knows that time is of the essence when the future of young potential drop-outs is at stake.”
Outside of his work with Syracuse Choice, O’Connor has an interest in photography and began “Kids with Cameras,” a program for students after school and on Saturdays. Last year, in a collaboration with Onondaga Community College, six of the participants exhibited at the Everson Museum of Art.
Mark Mondanaro: Embracing tough issues
Mark Mondanaro, superintendent of the LaFayette Central School District, has navigated some stormy waters since assuming his position five years ago. He has demonstrated courageous leadership in guiding community discourse that led to decisions that celebrate the unique relationship between the district and the Onondaga Nation.
Shortly after Mondanaro arrived in LaFayette, members of the Onondaga Nation and the LaFayette Central School District requested that the Haudenosaunee flag be flown on district property in accordance with international law. The Onondaga Nation has had a contract with the LaFayette school district since 1954. The request had been made several times before but had never been acted upon. Mondanaro agreed to research the legalities of the issue and later convened a committee that moved the process forward. Despite considerable controversy, the LaFayette Board of Education approved a resolution in June 2003 to allow the flag to fly over district property. On Nov. 12, 2003, the Haudenosaunee flag was raised on school property for the very first time during a ceremony at the LaFayette Junior-Senior High School. A few days later, a second flag-raising ceremony was held at the Grimshaw Elementary School.
“Some conversations tend to polarize people,” Mondanaro says. “As a leader, you do your best to hear all sides and try to depolarize the conversation.”
That conversation had barely abated when a group of Onondaga Nation seniors requested that they be allowed to wear their traditional regalia during the school’s 2006 commencement instead of a cap and gown. While the request seemed simple enough, it also proved to be controversial. Mondanaro skillfully led LaFayette senior students and their families on an educational journey that resulted in the decision to allow Onondaga Nation students to wear their regalia at commencement.
“It was simply the right thing to do and it enriched our celebration,” Mondanaro says. “In our culture, we celebrate commencement by wearing a cap and gown. Native Americans celebrate by wearing regalia. It’s an important part of their culture.”
Mondanaro says both decisions passed a three-part test that was developed after the request was made to fly the Haudenosaunee flag: Is the request legal? Does it set pejoratively inhumane precedent? And does it generally meet the standard of “Two Row”? Two Row is a treaty created between the Haudenosaunee Nation and the fledgling United States. The sacred Two Row wampum symbolizes the river of life. Running down either side of the wampum are two parallel lines, representing two canoes and two nations, traveling in parallel, respecting each other’s laws and culture.
“We are a community of two nations,” Mondanaro says. “That presents us with a number of challenges and unique opportunities. As leaders, we cannot always go through life making comfortable decisions. We need to embrace the tough issues if we truly feel it is the right thing to do for people.”
Poverello Health Center: No person turned away
The doors of the Poverello Health Center, a free service of Franciscan Northside Ministries, opened on a Friday morning in March 2000 on little more than a “wing and a prayer” and the deeply held conviction of its founders that no person in need of health care should be turned away because of an inability to pay. Since then, some 7,000 people have walked through the center’s doors to be cared for by a network of volunteer physicians, nurses and lay people.
When they first conceived the idea of a free health clinic, Poverello coordinators Sister Dolores Bush, OSF, Sister James Peter Ridgeo, OSF, and Suzanne Lamanna, OSF, M.D., thought the center would serve primarily the homeless and “street” people of the city’s North Side neighborhoods. Much to their surprise, the people who began filling the waiting room were predominantly low-wage earners who often work one or more jobs but who are not covered by employer-sponsored health insurance. Many earn just over the income limit for Medicaid eligibility, but they cannot afford the cost of a visit to the doctor’s office or the cost of prescription drugs. At Poverello, the doctor’s examination and medications are free.
The clinic opened with just one examination room equipped with odds and ends that Bush, Ridgeo and Lamanna had gleaned from friends and supporters of the Northside Ministries. At first, no one walked through the door.
“Our first patient didn’t come for three weeks,” Ridgeo says. “When he finally walked through the door, we were just so excited.”
However, word soon spread. The clinic changed its hours from Friday mornings to Monday evenings. People started lining up at the door before the clinic opened — more than could be seen in two hours. Bush and Ridgeo solicited new volunteers so clinic hours could be expanded to Wednesday evenings. Today’s volunteers include 13 medical doctors, two chiropractors, an optometrist, a podiatrist, four nurse practitioners, 24 nurses and a number of non-medical people.
Poverello outgrew its original facility and moved next door. There are now three exam rooms and a small medical lab — all stocked with donated equipment, including more than $1,000 of medical diagnostic equipment from Welch Allyn. The clinic receives donated pharmaceutical supplies from a network of physicians, and it networks with other health care providers to find services for people who need care beyond what the clinic can provide. It may be as simple as a referral to the Women’s Health Outreach program for gynecological services or to the American Cancer Society for cancer screening services, or as difficult as finding pro bono or reduced-cost services for someone in need of complex diagnostic or surgical procedures.
“We provide everything from simple band-aids to treatment for people with such chronic illnesses as diabetes, hypertension, depression, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases,” Bush says. “One evening, someone walked through our door in the midst of a heart attack.”
And the people keep coming — some 1,600 passed through the clinic’s doors in 2006. Poverello has also added several services, including counseling services offered by a staff of three volunteer social workers, who are available by appointment; a weekly legal assistance clinic staffed by 15 volunteer attorneys; and weekly “Soup and Scripture” Bible studies and “Coffee and Donuts,” both open to anyone who walks through the door.
“Who ever would have thought when we opened the doors that all of this would happen,” Ridgeo says. “We see all who come through our doors. We don’t ask questions.”