On Tuesday, The Philanthropic Initiative was joined by Mayor Martin J. Walsh and other local community leaders to celebrate five of Boston’s unsung heroes at the 26th annual Boston Neighborhood Fellows program (BNF) award ceremony.
TPI designed this program 26 years ago for one of its clients. This anonymous donor wanted to support individuals who often go unrecognized—the change agents who quietly make vital contributions to the quality of life in and around Boston. The program provides support and recognition to individuals who have done extraordinary community service in the Boston area. Each Fellow is nominated by a group of anonymous “spotters,” and nominations are then reviewed by a selection committee before the winners are selected. Each Fellow receives a $30,000 grant over three years to be used however they choose. To date, 154 outstanding individuals have been recognized as Boston Neighborhood Fellows, with more than $3,600,000 awarded as grants.
BNF Fellows’ work, dedication, and selfless attitudes may not be in the spotlight in the larger Boston community, but each Fellow has the potential to inspire others to hold themselves to a higher standard. Many, if not all of this year’s winners are leaders in an unofficial capacity, committing their personal time to serving others. They pledge their time to helping others lift their communities up in any way they can. As BNF architect and volunteer coordinator Melinda Marble noted at Tuesday’s ceremony, “change is a set of tiny baby steps that over time, add up to something.”
Every one of this year’s Fellows, along with those who came before them, has transformed the fabric of the neighborhoods in which they live. Take for example, Elsa Flores de Membreño, who has been crowned by her peers as the unofficial “Mayor of East Boston,” or Jose Valenzuela, who founded Boston Youth Wrestling as a way to mentor Boston area youth. Then there’s Wilbur Brown, who has dedicated his life to helping young men transition to life after prison; Bashier Kayou, an activist who has helped at-risk youth stay on the right track through activism and social engagement; and Patricia Larts, a literacy volunteer at the Trotter elementary school, where she has played a pivotal role in the school’s remarkable transformation. One thing became evident last night as the Fellows accepted their awards: they all do this work because of the joy it brings them and their communities. Wilbur Brown said it best, “One of the things I’ve learned is to do my work with passion and with love.”
Since its inaugural year, BNF has given so many of Boston’s most exceptional citizens the recognition that they have in fact made a significant impact in their communities, though it may slip under the radar of the general public. The program has become an integral part of this city’s DNA, inspiring so many over the years to take notice when everyday people go above and beyond what is asked of them, moving their communities forward in powerful ways, and motivating everyone that comes in contact with them to become agents of change in ways both big and small.
Congratulations to the 2016 Boston Neighborhood Fellows:
Wilbur Brown, Transitional Remedies Solutions
City employee and social entrepreneur, Wilbur Brown is a natural community builder who has dedicated his life to helping others who have been perpetrators or victims of crimes. His dependable and unflinching support has helped many young men successfully transition to life after prison. Whether working with the family of a homicide victim or a prisoner, Wilbur helps others discover and build upon their strengths, resilience, and the gifts they have to offer.
Elsa Flores de Membreño, Union Capital
The unofficial “Mayor of East Boston,” Elsa Flores de Membreño is an outstanding volunteer who has made community improvement her full-time job. With a genius for building relationships of trust, Elsa brings neighbors together to advocate for quality education, to push for affordable housing, to celebrate holidays, and to support each other, always with the goal of a better, stronger, neighborhood.
Bashier Kayou, Freelance
Bashier Kayou is an educator and organizer, with justice work in his DNA; he devotes himself to Jamaica Plain, healing its traumas and celebrating its activism. As tenant organizer, youth worker, or in his many volunteer roles, his dependable and caring presence and principled leadership inspire others, who refer to him as both tireless freedom fighter and activist caregiver.
Patricia Larts, Generations Incorporated
Warm, inclusive, dedicated, and passionate, Patricia Larts gives her all to the team of literacy volunteers she manages at the Trotter elementary school. A volunteer herself, Patricia is beloved by students, teachers, and her team. She has contributed greatly to making Trotter a better place; her buoyant and gracious presence makes all who know her want to do better for the children.
Jose Valenzuela, Boston Youth Wrestling
The founder of Boston Youth Wrestling, Jose Valenzuela devotes countless volunteer hours to bringing wrestling back into Boston Public Schools. Through his commitment, dedication, and enthusiasm, “Mr. V” inspires personal, academic, and athletic success on and off the mat in countless students.