The 35th annual Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee has announced the 2020 Unsung Hero Award winners.
The awards are bestowed annually on people who, in the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community,” have made a positive difference in the lives of others, but who are not widely recognized for their efforts. The categories include community member, student, faculty and staff.
This year’s recipients will be honored at the 35th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, to be held this year on Sunday, Jan. 26, at 5 p.m. in the Dome. The featured speaker is civil rights leader, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual home of Dr. King. Warnock will speak to his connection with Dr. King under the theme, “A Living Legacy.” The celebration is the largest of its kind on a college campus and features performances, dinner and the presentation of the Unsung Hero Awards.
Tickets for the dinner and program and program only may be purchased online, in person at the Dome Box Office located in the Ensley Athletic Center at 1315 E. Colvin St. (Monday 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), and by phone (888-DOME-TIX or 315.443.2121, option “four”).
This year’s Unsung Hero recipients are:
Pedro Abreu G’02 is a social worker at Seymour Elementary School, a dual language school in Syracuse’s Near Westside. Abreu brings compassion, leadership and care to his vocation of serving alongside youth from across Syracuse.
Abreu’s family moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic at age 10. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Army and was stationed overseas before serving at Fort Drum and Griffiss Air Force Base. When his time in active military service concluded, Abreu and his spouse chose to remain in Syracuse instead of returning to New York City, so that they could continue to help the Syracuse community.
“His family wanted him to settle closer to them, but his passion for seeing Syracuse’s children and youth improve their quality of life would not let him leave Upstate New York,” says Jonathan Santiago, Abreu’s friend and fellow social activist. Santiago is the Send Relief director in Puerto Rico and a former Baptist Chaplain at Syracuse University.
While in Syracuse, Abreu earned a master’s degree in social work at Syracuse University’s David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. In addition to his career as a social worker, Abreu has applied the skills he learned at Syracuse University in other community engagement, sport and anti-crime programs, including as a volunteer youth basketball coach at Skiddy Park in the Near Westside.
As a social worker at Seymour Elementary School, Abreu has worked with students to develop important skills and a trajectory for success. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the Syracuse City School District, and particularly Seymour Elementary School, received an influx of students whose families had moved to Syracuse to rebuild their lives. Abreu started a support group for students at Seymour where they could talk about the impact of the storm on their lives.
Abreu brings the discipline of a veteran, the compassion of his Syracuse University education as a social worker and his spiritual wisdom as a pastor and Baptist ordained minister to all of his work, says Santiago. Just as King brought the teachings of his Baptist faith to his social activism, so does Abreu, in turn embodying the legacy of King in his work.
Syracuse University Staff
Keri Courtwright doesn’t stop working when she leaves her job each day as a custodian with Facilities Services at Syracuse University. At home, she logs onto Facebook, where she is the founder and lead administrator of Pay It Forward CNY, a community of more than 7,000 central New Yorkers that connects people in need with people who want to give. Courtwright has impacted the lives of thousands of people in the Syracuse community through this group and all that she does for her neighbors.
Two years ago, Courtwright came up with the concept for Pay It Forward CNY when she saw a Facebook post from a friend who was was in need of clothing.. In an interview with SU News, Courtwright said she realized there was no online platform for central New Yorkers to ask for or give goods and services for free. She decided to create one. Since then, Pay It Forward CNY has helped connect thousands of people together in moments of positivity, kindness and service.
“Keri’s belief in kindness has changed the course of life for so many in our area, and it seems like momentum continues to build around the work she’s doing,” says Julie Walas, director of Student Engagement in the School of Information Studies and member of Pay It Forward CNY.
Courtwright spends several hours a day approving posts, scheduling transportation, handling requests and more in the Facebook group. Each Sunday during the summer months, she hosts a clothing giveaway event in her driveway in as an open space for the community to give and receive. This holiday season, she and her co-administrators organized a gift drive, wrapped presents, stuffed stockings and delivered the gifts to children and families across CNY.
Beyond the physical exchange of much-needed goods and services, Courtwright makes sure to spread emotional positivity and wellbeing within the Facebook group. Each day she posts inspirational quotes and kind words that “give people hope,” says Jami Freeman, a childcare provider in Syracuse and member of Pay It Forward CNY. “Keri exemplifies Dr. King’s legacy by creating hope for humanity and helping to lighten the load of people living in poverty.”
Courtwright, who has worked at the University for more than 13 years, recently brought her personal brand of kindness and positivity to campus. After acts of hate speech occurred on campus, Courtwright shared inspirational quotes and photos throughout campus to spread positivity to the University community.
One exchange and kind word at a time, Courtwright is making Syracuse and CNY a better place. “Keri Lynn is a beautiful person with a great big heart,” says Freeman.
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry Faculty
Environmental justice professor Lemir Teron’s field of study lies at the intersection environmental science, social justice and ecological sustainability. As an assistant professor in the Environmental Studies department at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Teron is a celebrated teacher whose outspoken support for people and communities of color has extended far beyond the boundaries of the SUNY-ESF campus.
Teron’s research, classroom teaching and community engagement focuses on the study of environmental justice, which is the movement to end systemic environmental harm acted upon marginalized populations. Teron brings the ideas of environmental sustainability and social justice together.
“He empowers students in his classroom and constantly challenges their line of thinking from the moment they enter the environmental studies program,” says Emily Li ’22, a SUNY-ESF student. “People are humbled yet energized in his class, feeling a call to action after every lecture.”
Teron is a widely popular professor at SUNY-ESF for his engaging classes and extensive mentorship. In class, he offers opportunities for students to work directly with community organizations, says Li. Teron also brings students to local sites that are part of his research, including the I-81 interstate highway.
Students of color across campusknow Teron as a generous mentor, says Laura Crandall, director of Student Involvement and Leadership at SUNY-ESF. Teron also actively involves students of color in his research group to ensure they are career ready. For his selfless commitment to students, Teron was awarded the 2019 Distinguished Faculty Member for Teaching Excellence Award from SUNY-ESF’s Undergraduate Student Association.
Teron’s research extends into the Syracuse community. He has shared his knowledge of environmental science as an advisor to the New York Civil Liberties Union’s I-81 campaign. His recognition as an expert in the field is also evident in his position on the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council’s Environmental Justice task force.
As King fought against systemic racism, Teron is working to ensure the next iteration of the interstate highway is developed with Syracuse’s Black communities at the forefront of decision making. He brings the same care and passion for justice to his teaching.
“Dr. Teron is a faculty member that helps underrepresented students feel at home and valued at ESF,” says Kailyn Wright, director of the Educational Opportunity Program at SUNY-ESF. “When students speak of him, their words are filled with gratitude.”
Syracuse University Student
Justine Hastings ’21 empowers the youth in her community through filmmaking, education and compassion. A double major in secondary English education in the School of Education and English and textual studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, Hastings utilizes creative teaching tools to engage students of all backgrounds and abilities.
“She is committed to equity and expanding educational access and opportunity for all,” says Elizabeth Guanipatin ’21, a friend and peer to Hastings. “She is a passionate advocate for systemic change for all those not in a position of access and privilege.”
At Syracuse University, Hastings has been a researcher, educator and leader, as well as a student. One of her recent accomplishments was earning a grant from the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE) to start a documentary filmmaking program for high school students at the North Side Learning Center in Syracuse. There, she will teach students the basics of documentary filmmaking and will evaluate the impact of creating their own films on the students’ literacy.
Hastings has an extensive background in educating youth in filmmaking and media literacy. During the summers of 2017 and 2018, Hastings interned at multiple nonprofits focused on the media arts in Brooklyn, New York. In those positions, she guided young filmmakers through the visual storytelling process. “With her patience and empathy, Justine has and continues to create safe and engaging spaces for artists at all stages of the filmmaking process, and aims to provide the creative inspiration, individual attention and intellectual environment they need,” says Guanipatin.
In addition to working with youth and filmmaking, Hastings is a mentor to students of all ages. She has served as an English tutor at Solvay High School and Grant Middle School, is an academic coach for the University’s Center for Learning and Student Success, and is a student research mentor at SOURCE. Hastings was also a peer facilitator of the Syracuse Reads Program/SEM 100, a five-week seminar that engages new students in shared reflection and discussion about themes of identity, belonging, diversity, inclusion and health and wellness.
Hastings’ generous compassion and empathy also extends to peer-to-peer support networks. She has served as an InclusiveU residential mentor and a facilitator for the LGBT Resource Center’s Fusion program, which brings LGBT+ students of color together for mutual support. Hastings is also an Our Time Has Come Scholar, Ronald E. McNair Scholar and a student in the Renée Crown University Honors Program.
In her life’s work and dedication to others, Hastings demonstrates commitment to King’s vision of equality, compassion and justice.
Syracuse University Student
As the community relations chair of the University student leadership program OrangeSeeds, Jack Ramza ’22 is committed to building sustainable and impactful relationships with community organizations . During his two years at Syracuse University, Ramza has built a reputation of integrity, commitment to social justice and compassion for others that seeps into his numerous roles as a campus leader.
“Instead of ‘checking a box’ or simply logging hours, Jack has been able to embody the values that Martin Luther King Jr. taught many individuals, which are the importance of listening and learning from others,” says Jimmy Luckman, a program coordinator in the Office of First-Year and Transfer Programs and advisor to OrangeSeeds.
OrangeSeeds is a first-year student leadership empowerment program designed to help first-year and transfer students develop into confident campus leaders. During the program, students participate in weekly community service and organize the Big Event, the largest student-run day of community service at Syracuse University.
Ramza works directly with community organizations to coordinate weekly community service activities in his position in OrangeSeeds. These organizations include The Nottingham senior living facility, Boys & Girls Clubs of Syracuse, OttoTHON, We Rise Above the Streets and more. Ramza strategically collaborates with community leaders when choosing service projects in order to maximize positive impact, says Luckman.
In addition to building OrangeSeeds’ presence in the Syracuse community, Ramza works with OrangeSeeds members to engage in intrapersonal reflection and dialogue. He takes time during meetings to encourage students to reflect on their impact in the community and what they learn from their experiences. “Jack is helping these future local, national and international leaders understand the importance of giving back to their community and making a commitment to better the lives of others,” says Luckman.
Ramza brings this same commitment to positive change in his positions across campus. He is a peer mentor for the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, recruitment chair for the Delta Upsilon International Fraternity and a former competitor in the Hult Prize through the Blackstone Launchpad. Ramza is dually enrolled in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management and S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where he earned the D’Aniello Freshman Merit Scholarship and Newhouse First-Year Achievement Award.
Ramza embodies King’s belief in the power of education to create open-minded and service-oriented citizens. “Jack has sustained my hope in the education system because of his eagerness and excitement about engaging in his community,” says Luckman.