Eight to be honored at MLK Jr. Commemoration for their community service

A photograph of the eight 20176 Community Service Award recipients

Image caption: The 2017 Community Service Award recipients are, from the left, Edward McKay Jr., Darcenia McDowell, Juliet Robinson, Darren Brownlee, Renee Blanding, Carrie Holdren-Serrell, Rhonda Johnson, and Ariel Hicks.

Credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine

Eight employees of the Johns Hopkins University and Health System will be honored for community service during the 36th annual Johns Hopkins Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, which will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 19, in Turner Auditorium on the East Baltimore campus. The theme of the event is what King called one of life's most persistent and urgent questions—"What are you doing for others?"

Practicing the true spirit of King's efforts to make a difference for all humanity, the following individuals were selected for their outstanding community service:

Renee Blanding, vice president of medical affairs, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center

As a young child, Renee Blanding cherished her visits to the one-room library in Camden, South Carolina, where her brothers helped her select books, then read them to her.

The vice president of medical affairs for Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Blanding is taking her "lifelong love" of reading into the classrooms of neighborhood elementary schools in East Baltimore as part of the Readership to Leadership literacy program she launched in 2013. She works closely with the school's teachers and community liaisons as well as colleagues from Bayview.

The program also involves "reading bees." The students initially took home books from the community book bank, but now Blanding purchases the books for the children in grades two to six to read during the winter and spring breaks. She and her colleagues follow up with the children to discuss the books, and they celebrate their success with an awards ceremony, trophy presentations, and pizza parties. "It's a magical time," she says.

Blanding and her colleagues also organized a spelling bee at the Henderson-Hopkins School, and she hopes to expand the program to Highlandtown and John Ruhrah elementary schools.

Blanding says she'd like to enrich the program with group mentoring and more staff volunteerism, but for now she is focused on increasing the involvement at the existing schools, which she calls "chapters." Her goal is to add an additional chapter each year.

"I believe we all can do more by contributing and volunteering in our public schools," she says. "The students really need us to be there to promote education and the love of reading at an early age."

Darren Brownlee, assistant administrator, Johns Hopkins Hospital

Five years ago, while serving with the National Association of Health Service Executives, Darren Brownlee responded to a call to mentor Baltimore youths through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

Brownlee, an assistant administrator for the Department of Medicine and chairman's office, has mentored his "little brother" from an unsure 11-year-old to a more confident high school sophomore.

"I wanted to make an impact on those who may not have male figures in their life, especially black male role models," Brownlee says. "It was one of the best decisions I've made."

During their weekly get-togethers, the two talk about academics, career goals, and everyday life; perform boxing drills at a local gym; and occasionally go to the movies. Last summer, the teen was an usher in Brownlee's wedding.

As president of the National Association of Health Servics Executives' Baltimore chapter, Brownlee increased the funding and participation for its paid 10-week summer internship program so that 12 competitively selected college interns could gain experience at local businesses and hospitals, including Johns Hopkins.

A longtime supporter of United Way, Brownlee also works with the organization's Emerging Leaders United, which provides opportunities for young professionals to give back to their communities.

While Brownlee pursues his doctorate in public health with a health policy and management track from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, he also is participating in a three-year Culture of Health Leaders program through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for training in health equity.

Ariel Hicks, research assistant, School of Medicine

Ariel Hicks says she felt a "deep separation between neighborhoods" after she moved to Baltimore from rural Missouri three years ago. A chance encounter with the founder of #popscope, a volunteer-run project that promotes public astronomy, provided Hicks with a way to bring together people of different backgrounds and experiences.

A research assistant for the School of Medicine, Hicks sets up her 90 millimeter Celestron refractor telescope just about every week in communities across the city, then invites people to take a peek at the moon, stars, and planets. She has conducted pop-up events in Eager Park, Patterson Park, Station North, and locations near the East Baltimore campus.

"It's a cool way to engage citizens and get them thinking about science," Hicks says. "You never know who you are going to meet. I'm focused on building relationships in the community."

She co-leads the Baltimore chapter of #popscope with Audrey Buckland, a research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and has established partnerships with the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to secure educational materials and to partner with professional astronomers.

Hicks also is involved with a community garden in Southwest Baltimore. One day each month she teaches kindergarten students at Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School about how to grow and prepare healthy foods as part of a program called Food for Thought.

Additionally, Hicks is a World Economic Forum Baltimore Global Shaper, as part of a network of people under age 30 who drive dialogue, action, and change, and is a cohort member of the National Science Foundation–supported Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program.

Why does she make time for community service? "One person took a chance on me when I was working in a coffee shop," Hick says. "Now, I'm in a position to pay it forward and give back to the community."

Carrie Holdren-Serrell, clinical scientist, Johns Hopkins Hospital

For Carrie Holdren-Serrell, community service is a way of life. A clinical scientist in the Mycology Laboratory, she organizes food and school-supply drives for her department, and uses her weekends and evenings for volunteer work, such as handing out food, clothing, and toiletries to homeless people and mentoring women in crisis pregnancy situations.

"Community service and volunteer work are just who I am as an individual, and who our family is," Holdren-Serrell says. "We have always volunteered in programs where we are able to serve others and have an opportunity to give back to the community."

Many of the volunteer opportunities come out of Holdren-Serrell's church. As a volunteer for Hannah's Hope, a nonprofit named after the pastor's daughter who fell victim to human trafficking, she speaks to community groups about the dangers of opioid addiction and human trafficking.

Holdren-Serrell also organized a teacher charity drive for City Springs Elementary/Middle School in East Baltimore, for which Johns Hopkins staff members donated more than 1,000 items on the teachers' wish list and $260 in cash. She coordinated a food drive that reaped 1,351 pounds of food for the Maryland Food Bank, prepared and distributed care packages for people living on the street, and assisted with the Mentoring Moms program at Alpha's Glory Pregnancy Resource Center.

Over the years, Holdren-Serrell has performed missionary work in Africa with a children's home for AIDS orphans, and other work in Mexico, Vietnam, China, Kunming, and Hong Kong with her husband and two daughters.

"Where there is a need," she says, "we do our best to meet it."

Rhonda Johnson, informatics program coordinator, Johns Hopkins Hospital

Rhonda Johnson's community service started small four years ago, and then kept growing. Determined to help people get what they need, she began by setting out a box in JHH's Gynecology and Obstetrics Department office for people to donate food.

"People rose to the occasion," says Johnson, a 32-year Johns Hopkins employee and clinical informatics coordinator. Now she is spearheading additional drives and collecting everything from disposable diapers to toys and toiletries. Last year's food drive donations provided more than 400 pounds of food to the Maryland Food Bank, and Johnson led a departmentwide clothing drive for women at the House of Ruth Maryland and the Center for Addiction and Pregnancy at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Most recently, Johnson organized a relief effort for victims of hurricanes and floods in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. She and her son collected and shipped 11 boxes of clothes for children and adults, plus other supplies, to those disaster-stricken areas.

"Helping others is the right thing to do," says Johnson, adding that it's especially important when it comes to people who are hungry. "As a nurse, we have a need to help, and providing food is the least that we can do."

Darcenia McDowell, laboratory service technician, School of Medicine

Like most offices, the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics relies on staff members to coordinate community outreach and volunteer activities. In many cases, Darcenia McDowell is the one who sets aside her duties as a lab service technician to take on that role.

The 27-year School of Medicine employee says she enjoys planning and assisting for the various events, including an annual Community Science Day and community science fair that Johns Hopkins runs for elementary school students in East Baltimore and the School of Medicine's weeklong Fun with Science Summer Camp.

McDowell also helps with a Johns Hopkins robotics competition and with the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research's Henrietta Lacks High School Day and annual symposium, which teaches high school students about Lacks' contributions to scientific discoveries. Additionally, she serves on a board that advises researchers on how to get the community involved with clinical trials.

Through her work with the Black Faculty and Staff Association, McDowell collects and distributes items for toiletry drives for the homeless, school supply drives for local students, and a supply and clothing drive for veterans. In the past, she's worked with the American Red Cross.

"We are not here just for ourselves," she says. "Spiritually speaking, we have a responsibility to take care of each other."

Edward McKay Jr., surgical technician, Johns Hopkins Hospital

One day while Edward McKay Jr. was watching TV, a mentoring initiative for boys of color called My Brother's Keeper caught his attention.

Then president Barack Obama was promoting the program, so McKay, a surgical technician in Johns Hopkins Hospital, decided to email the White House expressing his desire to mentor a child of an incarcerated parent. The personal email response he got from Obama provided extra motivation to connect with a young person.

For the past year and a half, McKay has mentored a boy who is now 15. "He's a good kid but was having issues in school," McKay says. "We talk several times a week. I stay on him about grades and encourage him."

He also speaks to students at local community colleges and events such as the Johns Hopkins Science Fair, sharing tales of his career journey from housekeeper to surgical technician. He also mentors other surgical technicians.

"They think, If he can do it, I can do it," says the longtime Baltimore resident and father of a 15-year-old daughter. "I know what it's like to grow up in a rough neighborhood. I say, Just because you see your friends do [something wrong], you don't have to do it. It's OK to set goals and to want to better yourself."

Juliet Robinson, surgical technician, Johns Hopkins Hospital

Juliet Robinson recalls that despite growing up poor in North Carolina, many times her parents would share their food with neighbors and also take dinners to the sick and bereaved. "My mother did not let us eat until a plate was first made for someone who said that they were hungry, along with a hug, kiss, and prayer," she says. "My parents taught us to give with your heart."

Now she devotes much of her own time to helping people in her East Baltimore community. "Whenever I see a need, I can't pass it off," she says.

A surgical technician for 35 years in the JHH Emergency Department, Robinson is the wife of a pastor and member of the evangelism ministry of New Mt. Olive Baptist Church. Along with providing food, clothes, and information about resources to those in need, she collects gently used pocketbooks and fills them with socks, toiletries, and other personal items for a local women's shelter.

Robinson also fulfills requests for snacks and cash donations for a lodging facility that accommodates the families of surgical patients at JHH.

Robinson enjoys sharing her career journey, speaking to community college graduating classes and participants in life skills workshops about careers in surgical technology.

One of the better aspects of her night-shift schedule, she notes, is that it allows her more time to volunteer.

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