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Honoring unsung heroes

Alumni share inspirational stories of fellow graduates making the world a better place.

In January, Wofford President Nayef Samhat sent out a notice to Wofford graduates asking for stories of unsung heroes from within the Wofford alumni family. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Stories came in of Peace Corps volunteers, teachers, coaches, clergy, volunteer firefighters, military personnel, public defenders and health care professionals, among many others. 

Some people sent in notes of praise for the idea even if they did not suggest a particular graduate to feature. “I greatly appreciate your direction on this project to spotlight Wofford heroes. Any initiative to recognize, inspire and elevate our Wofford family is good medicine for the world,” wrote Barton Aiken ’80 in one such message.

Samplings of the stories of unsung heroes are included here. Others are listed online, and still others will turn up in future issues of Wofford Today. Please keep the stories coming. If you have a recommendation of an unsung hero from the Wofford community, please share. Send stories to woffordtoday@wofford.edu or call 864-597-4183.

Correctional Chaplain Mike Brown ’72: sharing God’s shalom in prison

On a rainy and cool day in December, Chaplain Mike Brown ’72 stepped out of his car on Wofford’s campus. It was a workday, and he was between stops. He had just picked up the cremains of an inmate that he would return to Columbia for a memorial service and the spreading of the ashes in an inmate cemetery. His next stop was Livesay Correctional Institution to talk with the chaplain there. Wofford was close, and the visit brought back good memories. 

“I couldn’t resist a quick stop at my alma mater,” says Brown, whose lifelong call as a correctional chaplain began during a Wofford summer internship. “Wofford College offered me the opportunity to critically look at what I wanted to do with my life. I became a lifelong learner with a zest for involvement in the community. Of course, it led me to prison for life (he grins), but here I get to watch people grow and change in positive ways, people whose lives have been horribly fractured by their behavior. There’s a deep satisfaction in that.”

During his 41-year career in the ministry, Brown has served as a church pastor, hostage negotiator, industrial chaplain, hospital chaplain and Army chaplain in addition to his almost 40 years of work as a correctional chaplain. The experiences have led to pastoral care in the extreme circumstances of executions and for military units at war. Although Brown has retired from military service, he still keeps the list close at hand of the 110 soldiers who died in the units he served.

“It’s been an honor to walk with people in the midst,” says Brown, who has done more than his share of notifications and funeral services. “Life is fragile, and it’s been my task to strengthen and encourage people to face their reality. It’s the only way that they can be at peace and do the work that they need to do.”

Brown’s kindness and calm demeanor preach peace more effectively than any sermon. He has promised to perform a memorial service for a pagan soldier in case he became a casualty of war. He has served the final communion to people awaiting execution, and he supervises religious programming for an interfaith setting, which includes Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Hindus, Buddhists, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Asatrus and Rastafarians.

“Christ calls us to love, not judge,” says Brown, who believes that there is no question that a faith and a faith community help people grow positively through their time in a correctional system.

Brown retired a few years ago, but returned to work because of the need. Even now, the South Carolina state prison system currently has three openings for chaplains. According to Brown, correctional chaplains not only go through seminary training, but they also must do clinical pastoral training. There is no typical day, and each of the state’s 24 institutions is uniquely different. In addition, Brown serves as one of four captains in leadership for the state's nationally recognized hostage negotiation crisis response team.

Although Brown has been involved in a variety of intense situations, he says that he has never felt threatened.

“I just turned 66. I’m not on any prescriptions, and my blood pressure is 120 over 80,” says Brown. “God’s shalom is a powerful thing.”

Living from her core: Rouse thrives alongside homeless community in Houston 

Lanecia Rouse ’00 understands the dark night of the soul.

“When I was at Lake Junaluska, I felt strongly that I had been created and called to do something creative for God and for the world. I’d seen glimpses of that, but nothing in the organized church where all of my training and experience were. I was actually considering leaving the ministry to pursue photography,” says Rouse. “Then I met two visionary pastors from Houston, Texas, somewhere I never thought I’d end up, and received an opportunity to bring joy, life and beauty to the world while participating in God’s healing and restoration work.”

In 2011 Rouse became the project manager for The Art Project, Houston (TAPH), an organization that facilitates the recovery and discovery of the creative self for individuals experiencing homelessness and who are in transition in Houston.

“It was a nice marriage of ministry, the arts and community development,” says Rouse.

In her new role, Rouse has worked with people like Solo, a military veteran with an accounting degree who ended up on the streets of Houston. Through the therapeutic art process, he was empowered to create beautiful masterpieces and dream of a new future. Solo is now a tattoo artist in north Texas with a wife and daughter. Another of Rouse’s success stories is Ms. C, who lives under the bridge near the center. Ms. C has used the art project to, in her words, “feel less depressed.” She paints, creates pottery and makes beautiful greeting cards, which she sells to support both herself and the ongoing work of TAPH.

“For her, art is a form of prayer,” says Rouse. “She still lives under the bridge, but she has a shine and a newness about her. Ms. C can now have conversations about money and a life off the streets that she could not have before.”

According to Rouse, TAPH is important because it provides creative space and resources for people in the community who are disenfranchised and underrepresented.

“This is a safe, beautiful and affirming community for people who don’t have the privilege to go buy art supplies,” says Rouse.

Looking back, Rouse realizes that the education she received at Wofford, especially her major in sociology, was formative in shaping her relationships with the demographics to which she has been called.

“A lot of my work has been about bringing people together from various places in our community,” says Rouse. “I have days where I sit in million-dollar homes in conversations with people who care deeply about people living outdoors. Then I work side-by-side making connections with people who sleep under the bridge. I see now how what I was learning in the classroom and my heart for God were not separate things.”

After graduating from Wofford, Rouse earned an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School. She served local churches in South Carolina, England and Tennessee before joining the Bread of Life team. Although Rouse is no longer the project manager of TAPH, she still serves on the organization’s board, teaches workshops and thrives as a member of the community. She is now a working artist who also serves a local church part time.

“TAPH taught me that our souls and bodies hunger and thirst for beauty and the opportunity to create. Of course, we need food, a place to lay our heads and work, but we also need opportunities to hear good music, create or watch a beautiful film,” says Rouse. “I learned alongside the participants to be an artist and the importance of making art accessible to all. Now, art making is my work, and I feel like I’m living from my core because of that community.”

Josh Gross ’12

Since July, Gross has been working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia. From Mekele, the small city in the north where he teaches high school English, Gross has experienced his fair share of ups and downs. He contracted typhoid, but he also has grown a beard and enjoys dance parties with his host brother. Gross will be in Ethiopia for 27 months and will work as an ambassador to share American culture and promote cultural exchanges. To read more about his experiences, visit his blog at grossjoshuainethiopia.wordpress.com.

Arsenio Parks ’11

After graduating from Wofford, Parks returned to Shelby (N.C.) High School, his alma mater, to work with Communities in Schools as a graduation coach, helping students transition smoothly from middle to high school and targeting students who are at risk of dropping out. Parks works to connect and encourage these students and values the relationships that he has built with his students. “I explain that success does not look the same for everyone,” says Parks. “Whether it’s the first time they’ve made a passing grade or their first college acceptance letter, I celebrate the progression with them. The Communities in Schools mission is ‘to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life,’ and I can honestly say that brings me joy.”

“Humanist career choices aren’t glamorous, held up on pedestals or paraded around, but they are tremendously important,” says Onyx Henry ’11, a classmate who nominated Parks. “We need people to continue believing in youth and striving to keep them focused and motivated, and Arsenio Parks does that every single day.” 

Suzanne White ’98

As a public defender for Spartanburg County, White combines a passion for law with a desire to help those in need. She serves and defends people who are unable to afford representation in court. She attended the University of South Carolina School of Law and began her career at the Attorney General’s office in Columbia. “After working for the state for over six years, moving to the area of public defense was a big change,” says White. “I think everyone needs someone in their corner to listen to and support them, and this job gives me the opportunity to utilize my education, legal experience, personality and heart in a way that helps my clients and makes me feel that I am doing something to make a difference.”

Matthew Morrison ’09 

Morrison currently works as a volunteer coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice. Morrison provides counseling and empathy for the young men and women who are in the system, many of whom have been the victims of abuse and peer pressure. He also volunteers at the local homeless shelter and with the United Way.

Morrison’s passion for service began during his time at Wofford, when he was involved in a severe car accident; he sustained fractured bones and a traumatic brain injury. After six months of rehab, he regained the ability to walk and has since dedicated his life to helping others in need. 

Monique Collins ’13

“What I know now and wish I knew 12 months ago is that there are no saviors here. There are no gold stars or instant, greater rewards.”

Collins shared the above quote on her blog while working in Macedonia as part of her 27-month pledge to the Peace Corps. She is currently working as an English language instructor for school-age children and adults and has been in the Eastern European country since September 2014. Since that point, she has experienced many cultural challenges and rewards.

“I’ve encountered one race-based hurdle after another, have had days full of microaggressions and offensive remarks, and have been forced to validate my experiences,” says Collins. “I have to walk a tightrope of being diplomatic and polite, and in that walking I often forget who I am; my concept of dignity and confidence slips.”

Despite the many challenges, Collins also has written about positive experiences she’s had, whether successfully teaching American culture to her students, learning to cook Macedonian food or attending local theater productions. To read more about her experiences, visit her blog at servingwhileblack.wordpress.com.

Mike Dennis ’90 

Dennis works as the executive director of the TriCounty Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, an organization based in Orangeburg, S.C., that focuses on providing prevention, intervention and treatment to individuals and families who have been affected by alcohol and drugs. Dennis has worked in the field for 25 years and serves as a licensed professional counselor and a nationally certified addictions counselor.

Jody Legare ’93

Legare faced a rude awakening in March 2015. Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, he knew he needed to make drastic lifestyle changes and to implement them quickly. Since his diagnosis less than a year ago, Legare, a social studies teacher at Sun Valley Middle School in Indian Trail, N.C., has lost 90 pounds and no longer takes diabetes medication. Legare now runs six miles a day, seven days a week, and coaches the school’s swim team. He uses his diagnosis and life changes to inspire others, especially his students, to eat right and exercise.

Jeremy Pittman ’92

As the deputy field director for the Human Rights Campaign, Pittman manages daily operations and activities and coordinates staff, volunteers and field teams for the organization. Pittman is committed to social change, and prior to working at HRC, the nation’s largest civil rights organization for LGBT equality, he worked with MassEquality, another LGBT civil rights group, and served as the chair of the board of the LGBT Political Alliance of Massachusetts and the director for the Equality Federation. “Jeremy has been tireless in his willingness to speak with my students and share his perspective and experiences on making social change,” says Dr. Andy Hoefer ’00, assistant professor of English and assistant dean of the Honors College at George Mason University. 

Pittman says he feels privileged to work daily to engage supporters of equality. “It’s humbling to think that the work I do has opened the door for so many loving families to enjoy the benefits of marriage and for gay and lesbian Americans to serve in the military.”

Nancy Joyce ’95

For years, artist and curator Joyce painted wheels and bikes without truly understanding what drew her to these motifs. Finally, after reading a quote from Susan B. Anthony, Joyce realized that, to her, these things meant female empowerment and freedom. Since this realization, Joyce has worked with the not-for-profit Lotus Pedals program, a branch of the Lotus Outreach organization. Lotus Pedals provides bicycles to young girls in Cambodia so that they can more easily and safely travel to and attend school.

Joyce painted a collection featuring women on bikes and women with umbrellas, titled Bicyclette, that was on exhibition in fall 2015. She then donated a portion of the proceeds to Lotus Pedals. She personally delivered bicycles to some of the girls in Cambodia. In addition, Joyce creates cards with her message of hope: “I am smart. I am brave. I am determined.”

Dorothy Acee Thomas ’96 

Thomas feels passionately about community, and she's put her time, talents and resources into the development and success of SWAG, a grassroots organization whose goal is to address the needs of the community by connecting individuals and families to services and resources through advocacy and from agency and community partners. In 2010, Thomas was one of nice women who came together to discuss their concerns for a cluster of neighborhoods in southwest Gainesville, Fla. In June 2012, the SWAG Family Resource Center opened to bring full-service medical and dental care to area residents. Soon, according to Thomas, the center will feature an early learning center.

Fraser Speaks ’12

Speaks works as an English teacher and cheerleading coach in a Title 1 school in Charleston, S. C. The school receives little funding for books and supplies, and most of the students receive free or reduced lunch. Despite the circumstances, Speaks works to provide her students with better opportunities. She has raised money to buy books for the classroom and has even successfully contacted authors for donations.

“There’s no place I’d rather teach. I care about my students and work hard with them because I believe they can succeed,” says Speaks. “I have formed strong bonds with them, which are based, most importantly, on trust. I love what I do, and my biggest hope is that one day people will open their eyes to the conditions of students like mine and know how capable of success they are with the right materials and support.”

H. Theron Few ’55 

Few has found himself in jail. The former businessman volunteers at Alamance County jail at least once a week to minister to inmates by leading Bible study, prayer and poetry readings. He says his primary role, however, is to listen. Few’s ministry is in conjunction with First United Methodist Church in Graham, N.C. He has been volunteering since 2012. 

Ross Fox ’69 

After volunteering at the Hendersonville Christmas dinner, Ross Fox ’69 decided that something similar needed to be done in Polk County, N.C. In 2005, Fox began coordinating the Shepherd’s Feast, an annual dinner held on Christmas Day for members of the community who do not want to spend the holiday alone. This past year, 35 Shepherd's Feast volunteers served almost 300 meals. The event includes live music and a Santa Claus who delivers gifts to the children who attend. The ultimate goal of the event is to spread joy and a sense of community to people from all walks of life. 

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89 and Kelsey Aylor ’18
Spring 2016