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Four will receive Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Hero Awards

January 13, 2010

Kelly Homan Rodoski
(315) 443-3784

The 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Hero Awards will be presented to four members of the Syracuse University or greater Syracuse communities during the 25th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, “Continuing the Journey: Where Do We Go from Here?” The event will be held Sunday, Jan. 24, at 6:30 p.m. in the Carrier Dome.

This year’s award recipients are Donna Bradford, founder and president of Parents Promoting Dance (Community Adult); Stephanie Breed, founder of Books are Food for Thought (Community Youth); Odean D. Dyer a senior in SU’s L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science and a founding member of the Multicultural Empowerment Network (SU/ESF student); and Eric Kingson, professor of social work in SU’s College of Human Ecology, SUNY Upstate volunteer and author of “In Their Own Voices,” a book that taps the wisdom of children with life-threatening diseases.

Donna Bradford
A resident of Syracuse’s South Side, Bradford is president and founder of Parents Promoting Dance (PPD), a nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing and developing young dancers in Central New York, particularly those in underserved and underrepresented communities. Through her work with PPD and the local community, Bradford has dedicated her life to mobilizing urban youth in predominantly low-income settings and engaging them in community service.

During the day, Bradford works as a teacher’s assistant in the Syracuse City School District, where she has been a staff member for more than 30 years. At night, she spends her time at One Village Dance Centre, overseeing PPD’s dance classes.

Bradford and PPD nurture talented youth who aspire to become dance artists through disciplined instruction and prepare those students interested in professional dance to enter collegiate-level dance programs and dance companies. Students who are part of PPD receive dance instruction year-round in ballet, modern, jazz, Dunham dance and musical theater. The organization also offers a dance intensive program, which infuses excitement and mastery into instruction by bringing established dance artists of regional and national recognition to the Syracuse community. In addition, students participate in master classes held throughout the country, present an annual student performance, and attend field trips to performing and visual arts presentations throughout the year.

Bradford’s work with PPD began a few years ago, when her daughters were students of Onondaga Dance Institute (ODI), one of the few dance studios in Syracuse to draw a large population of African American youth into the ballet, jazz, modern, tap and Dunham disciplines. As a dedicated parent, Bradford believed there was a way that parents could take an active role in assisting the work of the studio and created a parent-teacher organization called Parents Promoting Dance. With no business or legal background, Bradford educated herself and filed the paperwork necessary to form PPD as a nonprofit organization with a small board consisting of students’ parents. As a result of her dedication, PPD became a fundraising arm of ODI and was able to bring, among other assets, master class instructors from New York City to teach classes to students and provide scholarships to low-income families that could not afford to send their children to dance class.

In 2007, ODI dissolved; in response, PPD continued offering the dance classes ODI once did for the sake of the children. Bradford was determined to not let the many children who had formed friendships and had begun developing as young artists slip through the cracks in the wake of ODI closing its doors. She also rallied PPD to open a space of its own. After two years of working with another nonprofit dance organization, Wacheva Cultural Arts, on fundraising through grants and grassroots campaigns, PPD and Wacheva opened One Village Dance Centre together this fall.

Bradford is not paid for the work she does for PPD. In fact, no member of the organization is paid. All of the income that is earned through the dance classes goes directly to the teachers and overhead expenses.

According to Jill Ouikahilo, director of communications at Wacheva Cultural Arts, who nominated Bradford for this award, “Donna earns a modest living at her day job but is constantly gifting whatever extra dollars she has to PPD. Monday through Saturday, after spending a full day at work and even on her off days, Donna is a constant figure at One Village. She greets each child as they walk through the door, and they respond to her like she is a second mother. In fact, even though I am 32 years old, I too feel like she is my second mom. She has an uncanny ability to comfort those around her in times of need.”

Ouikahilo calls Bradford a “doer,” who refuses to sit on the sidelines and wait for other people to step in. When she sees a need, she fills it, instinctively, with no thought or hesitation. When others might have let an organization like PPD fall by the wayside because it had evolved out of an organization that had dissolved, Bradford immediately took on the challenge of continuing PPD and moving it to next level because children in the local community needed the creative and artistic outlet.

“Each day, I am amazed by her tenacity and dedication to the city’s underserved children,” says Ouikahilo. “Donna has three children of her own, but on any given night her house normally sleeps more than three kids, because a safe space is needed for someone. She takes on these new challenges because it is the right thing to do.”

“I strongly believe in the saying, ‘It Takes A Village To Raise A Child,’” says Bradford. “I don’t know where I would be without the support and guidance that I received from family, friends and the community. Seeing my children and other children aspire fills my heart with joy. Everything I do is for the children in the community. I feel very honored and blessed to be receiving this award.”

Stephanie Breed
Breed, a junior at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, is working to fill one of the Central New York area’s silent needs. In 2008, she created the Books are Food for Thought program, which delivers books to children in Central New York who are receiving free meals. The program’s overall goal is to promote literacy by annually delivering five to six books to each child.

Since founding her organization, she has delivered more than 2,000 books to children at local organizations such as the Parkside Community Center, Southside Church of Christ, Northeast Community Center, Fayette Street Boys & Girls Club, Schiller Park Community Center and Wilson Park Community Center. “The best part of the program for me is the interaction with the kids—so many are surprised that they get to take the books home! After I have handed out books, it’s a great feeling to see them sit down right away and start reading,” says Breed.

Breed was inspired to begin this effort while volunteering at the Samaritan Center in downtown Syracuse, which provides a hot, nutritious meal daily to those who are in need. After seeing an additional need, she began to collect books from friends and family and organize local book drives. Today, there is a dedicated shelf at the Samaritan Center filled with books for children to enjoy.

Breed has worked with family and friends, parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church in Fayetteville, the Science Honor Society at Fayetteville-Manlius High School and others to collect donated books. She has also organized book drives at Wellwood and Eagle Hill middle schools to ultimately provide more than 200 local children with a book to read and enjoy. Breed also connects with potential book donors and raises awareness about the program through her website, http://booksarefoodforthought.org.

In addition to a love for reading and writing, Breed is a design editor for her school’s yearbook and has a small jewelry business that helps to raise money for the Books are Food for Thought program. After high school, she plans to attend college and hopes to continue work on Books Are Food for Thought on holidays and during the summer break.

“I’ve learned a lot about my community while running the Books are Food for Thought program,” says Breed. “I was surprised to learn how many community centers there are in Central New York and how many centers give out free meals to kids.

“This young woman has enormous dedication and a beautiful energy,” says Janet Donoghue, advisory board member at Women Transcending Boundaries. “She continues to evoke a love of books in children who have so little.”

Odean D. Dyer
As a 5-year-old, Dyer got his first glimpse of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was immediately enamored with the majesty of the structure.

“This bridge is just great. Who made it?” Dyer asked his father.

“Bridge people,” his dad replied.

Dyer later learned the more accurate terminology for the bridge constructors—civil engineers. The fascination he felt as a young boy grew into a quest to attend college to study civil engineering.

While he was growing up in the Bronx, a high school counselor told Dyer that he didn’t see him going to college. Dyer immediately set out to prove him wrong. He knew the way to a good life was to attend college, earn a degree, and establish himself in a good profession. A fierce determination to succeed, combined with strong support from his parents, got Dyer to Syracuse University, the only college to which he applied.

Dyer is now a senior in SU’s L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (LCS) and is set to graduate in May. During his years at SU, Dyer has not been content to simply bury himself in his rigorous engineering academic curriculum, but found the desire to make a difference on campus in other ways. During his first year, he became involved with a coalition of young men looking to foster the involvement of other young men in campus life and community service.

With other students, Dyer founded the Multicultural Empowerment Network (MEN), an initiative of the Office of Multicultural Affairs aimed at developing personal excellence while exploring cultural masculinities and responsibilities, and empowering African American, Latino, Asian Pacific American and Native American collegiate men to be leaders in partnership with women for their communities.

“Odean committed himself to this vision and quickly rose to leadership as the chairman of education,” says Paul Buckley, former associate director of SU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, who nominated Dyer for the award. “In that role, he helped to develop a culture of academic accountability among the group and researched local community issues and challenges where the MEN could lend their talent to solutions. As a result, MEN developed a service-focused relationship with the Alliances of Communities Transforming Syracuse.”

“Odean’s commitment to helping others and serving the community supports the vision of Dr. King’s ‘beloved community,’” Buckley says.

Dyer strongly believes the opportunities he has been given to be successful mean he must give back and help others achieve their goals. In addition to MEN, Dyer has served for the past three years as a peer leader for the WellsLink Leadership Program, a program to help first-year students become acclimated to college life.

Dyer also participates in two professional engineering societies: the American Society for Civil Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers. He is also active in the ACE mentoring program, which introduces high school students to careers in architecture, construction and engineering.

“Odean believes that he has been blessed with a great opportunity to be successful in engineering and in life,” says Charles T. Driscoll, University Professor of Environmental Systems Engineering in LCS, who also nominated Dyer for the Unsung Hero Award. “As a result, he is highly motivated to use this success as a platform to make meaningful contributions to the community. Odean is bright, thoughtful and articulate; people immediately connect with him. Using these skills and his considerable leadership, Odean has put his ideas into actions, through his work with MEN and other community service activities. Given his attitude, I believe this is just the start of a lifelong commitment to community service. We have been fortunate to have Odean as a role model to inspire others at the University.”

Eric Kingson
Kingson, professor of social work in Syracuse University’s College of Human Ecology, spends his professional life thinking, teaching and writing about policy issues, such as Social Security.

Involvement in the political movements of the 1960s shifted his interests from child psychology to social and human rights policies. Beginning when he was 16 and serving as a volunteer and occasional magician on the pediatric floor of Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, Kingson, a magician by avocation, maintains a special interest in children experiencing adversity. And he has special appreciation for the strength and dignity he has seen people summon when facing life-threatening illness.

So, it is not surprising he found himself 40 years later volunteering at Upstate’s Center for Spiritual Care, beginning in 2005, and talking with children and youth experiencing very serious illness—such as cancer, sickle cell anemia, Chron’s disease—about what sustains them and their families and what advice they have for other children and young adults, health care providers and family members.

Over the next three years, a book grew out of these conversations. “In Their Own Voices” was published by Upstate’s Center for Spiritual Care.

“The kids I interviewed are the ones who are deserving of awards,” Kingson says. “They’re exceptional.” He says there is a “tremendous amount of human strength” that comes out in many people who are faced with a serious life crisis. “It really is inspiring,” he says.

He also gives credit to the Rev. Terry Culbertson, manager of the Center for Spiritual Care, and the Rev. Louise Shepard, pediatric chaplain at Upstate, who helped conceive and shape the book and who connected him to the children, youth and families. Susan Keeter, assistant director for creative services in the marketing department at Upstate, laid out the book and did the graphics.

Keeter, who nominated Kingson for the Unsung Hero Award, thinks he is very deserving of the honor. She points out that he interviewed the children and youth and their families, as well as gathered photos, drawings, poetry and other writings for the volume. “Helping these children publish their stories is just one way that Kingson ‘gives voice’ to those who may not otherwise be heard,” she says.

The advice contained in “In Their Own Voices” ranges from the concrete (“Snuggle with your mommy,” says 5-year-old Brooke Arnold) to the more cerebral (“Never doubt you’ll get better—it’ll help you,” says 12-year-old Erica Putch). Seventeen-year-old Ashleigh Wainwright strikes a spiritual note when she talks about why she chooses to go bald-headed, rather than wear a wig. “… I’m not ashamed of myself or my body or the scars I have .… I am who I am. As God made me.”

While receiving the Unsung Hero award is a big honor, Kingson isn’t even the first in his family to get it. His son, Aaron, received the award in 2001 for volunteer work he did for Syracuse’s Fayette Street Boys & Girls Club when he was a high school student.

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