Nine faculty, staff members, and students from Johns Hopkins University and Medicine have been selected to receive the 2023 Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Community Service, a special honor recognizing those whose commitment to others embodies King's legacy of service and equality. Whether they spend their time aiding refugees, expanding access to high-quality science education, or advocating for those with disabilities, this year's award recipients have gone above and beyond to improve the lives of their neighbors.
Additionally, Erica Martin Richards, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Sibley Memorial Hospital's chair and medical director for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, recently received the 2024 Levi Watkins Jr. Ideals Award. Named in honor of Levi Watkins, Johns Hopkins Medicine's first Black chief resident and full professor, this award is given annually to a leader at Johns Hopkins Hospital who has made an outstanding contribution to the institution.
All 10 award recipients will be honored during Johns Hopkins' 42nd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, which will be held on Friday, Jan. 12, in the Chevy Chase Auditorium in East Baltimore. The event will include a keynote speech from former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, and will also be livestreamed.
Learn more about this year's awardees:
2023 Community Service Award Recipients
Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital
Community service has always been a part of Maxwell Duah's life. In his native Ghana, he worked with local health care practitioners to deliver health screenings and educational materials about cancer to underserved populations. After receiving a scholarship to earn his doctorate in hematology in China, he dedicated weekends there to providing food, clothing, and basic supplies to orphanage homes and rural communities.
Now a postdoctoral fellow at the Cancer and Blood Disorders Institute at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, Duah volunteers on Saturdays at Positive Impact Worldwide, an organization that addresses childhood hunger in St. Petersburg, Florida. While there, Duah helps assemble and distribute packages of food. Then, after volunteering from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., he and his wife drive around the area to deliver leftover food and drinks to individuals experiencing homelessness.
"To me, the most profound way to manifest the love of God is through community service," said Duah. "I exemplify this by serving people. ... We all possess the capacity to overcome challenges with the support of a caring community."
Medical student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Third-year medical student Marcelina Kubica has been volunteering several hours per week with the Johns Hopkins-based Refugee Health Partnership since November 2021. She currently is the client outreach student lead at the program's HEAL Refugee Health and Asylum Collaborative, which is based at the Esperanza Center in Baltimore's Fell's Point neighborhood.
Kubica performs virtual work for clients at the border and conducts forensic medical evaluations in-person for those displaced from their home countries. She also raises money through grants and bake sales, provides Spanish-language interpretation at the clinic, and serves as a health navigator for Asylee Women Enterprise. As the daughter of Polish immigrants, she understands that while this work can be difficult, sad, and frustrating, it can also be tremendously rewarding.
Trainee at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
One of Sanjay Kubsad's driving goals is to make high-quality education more accessible. Outside of his work as a research fellow in orthopedic surgery at the Johns Hopkins Howard County Medical Center, Kubsad is a mentor at the Young Scientist Journal, an international student-run, peer-reviewed publication. During high school, he was senior editor and then head of outreach, piloting a concept called Hubs to help students anywhere in the world assemble research-oriented science clubs.
"We'd provide all the materials and resources for the kids to run activities, and we'd connect them to local community members who could come in for talks and mentorship," Kubsad explained.
Kubsad's commitment to education equality has also extended to younger learners. From 2017 to 2019, while earning a bachelor's degree in neuroscience at the University of Washington, he served at Jumpstart, an AmeriCorps initiative, as a corps member and team leader in underserved Seattle-area preschools including the Refugee Women's Alliance and El Centro de la Raza.
Director of Healthcare Economics at Johns Hopkins Health Plans
Growing up, Shelly LaPrince watched her father help people in their community while balancing full-time work, a family, and military service. His example lit a fire in LaPrince that continues to burn bright. Over the past 20 years, LaPrince's work has included mentoring young girls, adopting families from local schools for the holidays, participating in reading programs for inner-city youth, and packing meals for elderly families.
These community service efforts turned to advocacy when she faced a personal challenge while trying to conceive a child, navigating the health care system in the process. As a result of her experience, she was inspired to assist and support others also dealing with infertility. LaPrince is also currently making her mark on global advocacy as she fulfills another need: ensuring Jewish women of African descent are seen and heard in safe spaces.
"The level of fulfillment I received from helping others provided the motivation to continue giving back," she said.
Medical student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Nicole Pannullo, a doctoral student in cellular and molecular medicine, began volunteering with Equal Access in Science and Medicine shortly after its creation in 2019 and continues to lead the group's advocacy for students with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental health conditions.
Pannullo, who grew up on Long Island, New York, was born with moderate hearing loss and has worn hearing aids since preschool. In eighth grade, she was diagnosed with Usher syndrome type II, a genetic condition characterized by hearing loss at birth and progressive loss of peripheral and night vision starting in adolescence. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was inspired to push for accessibility measures at Johns Hopkins, including recorded lectures and closed captioning. She is now helping to create a network that will connect trainees with alumni mentors who have similar disabilities and career interests.
"We shouldn't feel like we have to hide our disabilities," Pannullo said. "People with disabilities should be celebrated as an underrepresented group that can bring different experiences to the table."
Intern at the Johns Hopkins Howard County Medical Center, Student at Glenelg High School
James Peng's journey from China to Howard County at age 11 fueled his passion for the medical field, particularly around oncology research. During his current internship at the Johns Hopkins Howard County Medical Center, Peng has helped the continuing education team as they work to initiate and implement projects to foster nursing education. For example, he has created informative medical brochures that teach patients about the potential benefits of immunotherapy treatments and has worked on educational videos about peritoneal dialysis and setting bed alarms for patients at risk for falls.
Beyond his internship, Peng holds significant positions in various service organizations, including his role as the lieutenant governor of the largest student service organization in Howard County: the Key Club, which empowers hundreds of members to engage in meaningful community service initiatives. Looking ahead, Peng will be a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, aiming to learn more about leukemia and cancer genetics. He has clear aspirations to continue contributing to the local and patient community, with the eventual goal of becoming a physician-scientist.
Program Coordinator at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital
In 18 years at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, Jannette Pennywell has established herself as a person who regularly goes the extra mile. If the hospital's foundation has an event, she is sure to volunteer.
"Her heart for our hospital's mission is palpable, her smile is contagious, and she exudes joy," said Sondra Boatman, a nurse who nominated Pennywell. "Her ability to connect with and support people, regardless of background or circumstance, is a direct reflection of Dr. King's vision of a world free from discrimination and prejudice."
"I try to put myself in their shoes," said Pennywell, a program coordinator in the hospital's risk management department. "People come to Hopkins All Children's on their worst days. They're sick, they're afraid. I just try to see if I can bring a little light or joy to their day."
Communications Associate at Johns Hopkins University
Gina Wadas, who joined Johns Hopkins in 2017, has led her office's annual holiday-giving efforts for the past six years. Following her lead, Wadas's coworkers have participated in the Vernon Rice Memorial Holiday Turkey Program, the Adopt-a-Family program, and the Adopt-a-Senior program, donating gifts, clothing, meals, and gift cards to those in need.
Wadas is also an ambassador for the Office of Sustainability, which seeks waste reduction through better recycling, compost, and incineration bin use. Before moving to Oella, Maryland, in July, Wadas typically spent a few hours each week picking up trash on the streets, sidewalks, and alleys around her Remington neighborhood in Baltimore.
Wadas encourages other staff members to look for volunteering and donation opportunities, noting that "Hopkins offers so many ways to give back."
"I don't believe in the self-made person concept," Wadas said. "We all get by with help from people in some way."
Professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health
For the past 10 years, Albert Wu has been working on improving the health of people in East Baltimore by increasing communication and engagement between community-based organizations and Johns Hopkins hospitals and clinics. Since 2017, he has served as president of Baltimore CONNECT, a nonprofit network of community-based organizations, churches, and neighborhood associations that focuses on linking social and health care services across Baltimore.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Wu helped establish a weekly conference call, then a Zoom meeting, to help distribute information and supplies. Since then, Baltimore CONNECT has given out countless food donations, as well as roughly 900,000 face masks, face shields, and hand sanitizers.
"I'm amazed by the dedication of the people on those virtual calls every week," he says. "CONNECT has become a two-way channel for getting information in real-time on what's happening with residents in East Baltimore—and on what resources are available to help them."
2024 Levi Watkins Jr. Ideals Award Recipient
Erica Martin Richards
Assistant Professor at the School of Medicine, Chair and Medical Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Sibley Memorial Hospital
During the COVID-19 pandemic, psychiatrist Erica Martin Richards helped scores of underserved people in the Washington, D.C., area who were struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges thanks to virtual sessions arranged with the Sibley Memorial Hospital outreach staff. She also spoke by Zoom with congregants of local churches who wanted to learn about various conditions affecting their moods and behaviors.
Now, the chair and medical director of Sibley Memorial Hospital's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health continues to serve as a trusted community resource, working tirelessly to improve the mental health of women and minorities.
"It's really heartwarming to know that what I love to do is able to make a difference—and that other people can see that," said Richards. "It's acknowledgment that I am helping our communities through ensuring equal access to care, from diagnosis to treatment to participation in research, and that representation matters."