Courtesy of SWNA ESTF.

By Paula Young Shelton

For the past 50 years, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) has supported students in our community by providing scholarships to college and graduate school. On Sunday, August 6, donors, supporters and recipients past and present gathered at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church to celebrate the distribution of more than $78,000 to 34 undergraduate and graduate students. 

Kenneth Ward, Executive Director of College Bound, Inc., served as the emcee and set the tone for the event. “I know the power of education. Education changed my life,” Ward said. 

Trustee Jim Harley welcomed attendees to the church with an invitation to join the worship or use the space, which is always open to community members. The co-chair of SWNA’s Education and Scholarship Task Force, Vyllorya Evans, who has spearheaded the task force since 2014, proudly announced to the largest crowd ever that ESTF was the oldest of the eight SWNA task forces.

The SWNA Board was represented by President Donna J. Purchase who thanked all the volunteers and the generous donors who made it possible to support so many amazing students in their academic pursuits. Since its inception, ESTF has awarded 632 scholarships to 277 students totaling $660,000. 

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen told the students and their families that the scholarship was evidence that the community stands together in supporting and rooting for them, and reminded everyone to keep paying it forward. Allen presented Evans with a resolution to recognize and honor the work of SWNA to support students in near Southwest. 

Eric Smith, co-chair of the SWNA ESTF, shared a definition of community as “a feeling of fellowship as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals” and called on recipients, donors, sponsors, and task force members to stand, acknowledging the wonderfully diverse community in Southwest with a common goal of educating and supporting our youth.

One of the highlights of the event was Ben Sands’ performance of “This is My Story” on soprano saxophone, accompanied by drums and a bass guitar. Sands is a past recipient of the SWNA scholarship, which he used to buy his first saxophone. Clearly, it was a great investment, as the jazz musician and teacher also treated the crowd to an original, celebratory tune entitled “Flowers” which he played using both the alto and soprano saxophones.

The keynote address was delivered by another past scholarship recipient, Shantella Y. Sherman. This impressive young woman used her SWNA scholarships to support the completion of her undergraduate degree from Jackson State University, then went on to earn her Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dr. Sherman called out members of the Southwest community who had supported her since she came to the neighborhood as a toddler, like Ben Sands and Thelma D. Jones. She acknowledged the positive impact that Amidon Elementary, now Amidon-Bowen Elementary, and the beloved librarian Marilyn Moser, had on her love of learning. Sherman recalled going to Arena Stage, the Smithsonian, the Capitol, and National Archives to round out her education and lovingly called the monument grounds her playground, reminding us all of the rich and unique environment that we call home. Sherman not only gave an eloquent and inspirational address but also passed out gifts to some audience members, including the oldest and youngest, encouraging them to buy a book and modeling how to pay it forward. She encouraged the students to know their academic challenges, be prepared to sacrifice for their goals, and to know themselves. Sherman expressed gratitude to those that supported her with notes of encouragement and care packages and reminded families of the importance of providing emotional support to their children while they are away in school. 

The celebration continued as attendees enjoyed a delicious meal catered by Dreaming Out Loud, Inc. as well as cupcakes by Grace Michelle-Jenkins, owner of Amazing Grace Cupcakery, and more desserts by Kaydra, A Gift From A Dove. Creations by KC provided a festive backdrop to the celebration with graduation-themed decorations. Peter Eicher, President of Friends of Southwest DC, awarded scholarships funded by that organization which included the Coralie Farlee Scholarship which was established in 2022. Perry Klein, Chair of the SWNA Technology Task Force offered free refurbished laptop computers to all the scholarship recipients. Rick Bardach and Delmar Weathers, Co-Chairs of the Scholarship Committee, announced the undergraduate recipients and presented them with certificates and gift bags, which included a generous monetary gift from Dr. Sherman, again showing us how to pay it forward.

This wonderful community event culminated with an appeal from Arnice M. Mack and Lisa M. Matthews, both of whom are past scholarship recipients and current co-chairs of the 50th Anniversary Celebration. They called for everyone to donate their time and talents to support the young people of Southwest. The returning recipients are evidence of the program’s success and the positive impact that SWNA continues to have. 

Thelma D. Jones, former co-chair of the ESTF and current co-chair of the 50th Anniversary Celebration planned for next year, articulated the value of having past recipients engaged in future planning. “They epitomize paying it forward to an organization that supported them. It shows that the community made a good investment. They not only completed their education, but also returned to reinvest in the community.”

For the past 50 years, the SWNA ESTF has made a tremendous contribution to the lives of students, their families, and our community at large. By providing scholarships they have helped to ease the monumental burden of college tuition, but they have also inspired and encouraged young people to pursue their educational goals and provided a pathway for Southwest residents to invest in their own future by supporting the leaders of tomorrow. 

SWNA ESTF is a wonderful example of paying it forward and we can only hope they will continue for another 50 years. Contributions to SWNA ESTF can be made online at or  you can mail a check payable to SWNA with the Scholarship Fund in the memo line at P.O. 70131, Washington, DC 20024.

Paula Young Shelton is a teacher and author who is grateful that her son, Noah Shelton, received a SWNA scholarship to attend Emory University.

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