Walking the Walk

September 01, 2011

By Leigh Perkins Brown

Three Rollins alums share the rewards of a lifetime of service.

David Lord ’69 ’71MBA

Rarely does David Lord speak of the gifts he has given his alma mater (there have been many), but he eagerly tells of the favors Rollins College has bestowed upon him, most particularly an impassioned interest in community service.

“When I was a student at Rollins, I was involved in campus activities, but we didn’t have true service-learning,” he said. “It was about 10 years ago when I was back on campus that I found my passion for making a difference. The Rollins community has really rallied around the idea of service and that has gotten me excited to go out into my own community and see how I can be of service.”

At home in Colorado Springs, Lord serves on the board of the community health center, on the board of the local Goodwill agency, and as director of Innovations in Aging, a support agency for seniors.

“Retirement has allowed me to stay more engaged,” he said. “I spent 40 years teaching students to go out into the world and make a difference. I have to walk the walk.”

Those 40 years included time at Ithaca College before returning to Rollins for a decade as the College’s business manager. In 1987, he became an administrator at Colorado College. He retired five years ago but continues to be actively involved in his civic interests as well as in the future of his alma mater, serving as vice chairman of the Board of Trustees, tireless alumni promoter, and generous philanthropic supporter. In fact, his family foundation provides funding for many of Rollins’ community-engagement initiatives.

“Our whole family has a new passion for service, just from watching Rollins and learning about its programs,” he said. “We meet twice a year to spend a day seeing how our funds are making a difference. Our family is now so much more robust, the quality of our conversations is so much deeper, and I can honestly say it’s because Rollins has helped us find our passion as a family.”

Director of Community Engagement Micki Meyer said Lord’s is the paradigm of the engaged life. “He is not a professional nonprofit executive. He isn’t a once-in-a-while volunteer, and he’s not just a donor. He has put his commitment out there in the world to do whatever he can to make a difference. He is very humble about it, but his is truly an exemplary life of service.”

Lord believes, though, that his generation is on the verge of making him quite ordinary. “Baby Boomers are starting to retire, and that is a huge resource of life skills and experience ready to be put to good use,” he said. “My generation is not going to be sitting in a rocking chair. We’re going to be fully engaged and making a difference.”

Suzy Plott ’09 ’13MBA

Mention Fern Creek Elementary in the same breath as Rollins College and undoubtedly the next name to pop up will be Suzy Plott’s. “She just kept showing up at Fern Creek,” said Micki Meyer, director of community engagement. “As a student, she helped with an art class and became a mentor and then coordinator of volunteers. And she’s still involved, connecting volunteers as community and office coordinator for the Office of Community Engagement. This is how one experience can ignite a lifetime of service.”

A native of North Carolina and new to the Rollins campus in 2006, Plott had never heard of Fern Creek or its D ranking. She had no idea so many of its smallest students were confronted daily with poverty and neglect. But she visited the Orlando school with other first-year students and soon found herself building birdhouses with a squirmy, giggly group of Fern Creekers. “I was hooked,” she said. “I have always loved kids, and I connected with what they were trying to accomplish with a population that needed extra help and support.”

Fern Creek’s challenges are formidable. Up to 25 percent of its students are homeless, living in motels, cars, or the Coalition for the Homeless (the shelter is on the school bus route, and any child staying there is loaded onto the bus in the morning). Three-fourths of its student body will not complete the school year because its population is transient. More than 80 percent of its students qualify for free lunches.

“It’s important to create a stable community at school because other parts of their lives can be unstable,” Plott said.

Plott’s kind of dedication gets results. For five of the last six years, Fern Creek has had an A rating, with 85 percent of students achieving high scores in math and nearly as many in reading. A talented faculty, grant money, and limited class size take much of the credit, but there is no denying that the thousands of volunteer hours Plott has coordinated for the school have paid off.

It is the relationship with the children, though, that keeps her coming back. She tells the story of turning her then-office into a shoe shop, so every student could pick out a new pair of donated sneakers. One little girl’s toes were poking out of her old shoes, at least three sizes too small. “She was so thrilled to get those new shoes,” Plott said. “I thought about how many shoes I have in my closet and what I take for granted. If my job didn’t exist, that girl wouldn’t have had clean, comfortable shoes that fit. It’s amazing to have what you’re doing on a Tuesday afternoon make that much of a difference in a child’s life.”

Tocarra Mallard ’10

If Tocarra Mallard has her way, every student who wears the yellow T-shirt, emblazoned with the words Future College Graduate would fulfill its prophecy. Elementary school students who attend Pathways to College, an event Mallard oversees as the campus AmeriCorps VISTA representative, proudly wear the shirt as they soak in the Rollins experience for a day.

“Pathways to College brings students from Title I schools to the Rollins campus to plant in them the idea of why going to college is so important, Mallard said. We have them attend classes, eat lunch with our students, do a Q&A with them, and give them a taste of what college life is really like.”

Hundreds of kindergarteners through 12th-graders tour the campus every year, their Rollins guides pointing out secret spots for studying and the courts where the basketball team runs drills, helping them to build their own dreams of an academic future. They might put on a skit in the theater or hear the choir sing. Some work with robots or do science experiments. “They take it all in,” Mallard said. “That’s why planting the idea of college is so important.”

Born in Germany and raised all over the world in a military family, Mallard has an art history degree from Rollins and an impressive résumé of accomplishments on campus (top spots in student government, Black Student Union, and Sigma Gamma Rho, to name a few). She could have taken any number of opportunities, but chose to merge the passion for service Rollins instilled in her with her love of the campus community to accept the post with AmeriCorps, a national service program started in 1965 to fight poverty–sort of a homeland Peace Corps.

“Our mission isn’t small,” Mallard said. “It is to abolish hunger and homelessness in the United States.”

Showing off the College’s assets to eager young minds is only the first component of Mallard’s work with Pathways. Rollins students continue to connect with the littler students by mentoring and closely following their academic careers, providing encouragement along the way.

“We call it the Pathways culture,” Mallard said. “This isn’t just a fun field trip. The conversation about college keeps going. At Fern Creek, for example, they use college vocabulary on a regular basis and they have college days when their teachers wear the regalia from their alma maters, reinforcing the idea of college. We want these students to move from awareness to preparedness, to make sure they have the tools to get there.”

They also want to make sure these kids leave with the belief that college will be the game changer for them. “Our goal is to bridge the gap and show that college can be a part of everyone’s future,” Mallard said. And to make sure they have a T-shirt to remind them of where they’re going.

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