Every year, Central Carolina Community Foundation and Columbia Metropolitan Magazine partner to honor people in our community who are making a difference. This year, three individuals and one company have been selected, and they are each extraordinary in their own right, having found a calling to help others –– whether through personal challenges that led them to where they are today or through a mission to honor those who have gone before them. This commitment to service over self is making an indelible difference in the lives of others, an impact that most will never know.
Kassy Alia’s life changed forever in September 2015. Greg, her husband and a Forest Acres Police Department officer, was killed in the line of duty while serving and protecting his community. Kassy could have taken this opportunity to lash out at the person who took her husband’s life, to wish it all away, and become hardened by this tragedy. She did the opposite. Less than five months later, Kassy founded Heroes In Blue, a nonprofit organization created not only to honor Greg, but also to spread the word about policemen engaging in compassionate and courageous acts. She says the group’s mission is to promote positive police and community relationships and to provide support to the families and colleagues of fallen officers.
“The mounting divisiveness between police and community was deeply upsetting to me prior to Greg’s death,” says Kassy. “When he was killed, I felt driven to take action to raise awareness of the acts of kindness and compassion shown by our law enforcement every day. That message has since grown into a broader mission that breaks down barriers and helps to make unity between police and community the norm.”
Bringing people together during such a divisive time has been challenging, as Kassy has found that many believe supporting both law enforcement and the communities they serve is not possible. Kassy and the volunteers at Heroes In Blue are working tirelessly to show just how much positive change can happen when people come together over common ground. “Breaking the stigma of law enforcement versus civil rights to show how the two are intricately intertwined is an important and pressing challenge,” she says.
Heroes In Blue is undertaking gallant efforts to bridge the gap. The organization is bringing law enforcement agencies together with Harvest Hope for Greg’s Groceries, an initiative to provide law enforcement with boxes of nonperishable food for people who are hungry and in need. They are also building partnerships with the Latino community and police in order to ensure that all victims feel safe seeking essential resources for healing.
The list of action-oriented partnerships continues to grow, as does the overwhelmingly positive response of the police officers who are so appreciative of Kassy and her efforts. “There are so many amazing police officers in our community who are driven to make a positive difference,” says Kassy. “Every day, they come across people in some of the most heartbreaking situations imaginable, and yet they continue to fight for a better community.”
Heroes In Blue works to redefine what it means to be a hero. They believe a hero is someone who treats people with respect and compassion every day, one who seeks to listen first rather than judge. They believe a hero is committed to spreading change through kindness and love — things that so many police officers do on a daily basis. Kassy wants the Columbia community to join the effort to choose every day to take care of their neighbors and to find courage to lead with love and eventually ignite change.
Love and empathy have enabled Kassy to cope with the death of her husband. Since his death, she has called for empathy, but she has found that, too often, the concept is misunderstood. “Empathy does not mean accepting bad acts or supporting hate,” says Kassy. “It means we are willing to go outside of our comfort zone to put ourselves in the shoes of another. This takes listening to people who are different from us and truly seeking to understand the things that can drive people to do certain actions, even horrific actions like taking someone’s life. When we do so, we are able to see the many ways we can prevent such actions. I will never be able to bring Greg back, but I promise to do all I can to prevent this pain from happening to others. And I will only be able to do so by having empathy.”
Kassy Alia embodies strength, taking one of life’s greatest tragedies and turning it into a triumph for her community. Greg would be proud.
Jamal Stroud has been committed to the service of others since he was a young child. Jamal’s mother gave birth to him while she was addicted to crack cocaine, and then she left him at the hospital, which led to Jamal being placed in foster care. From birth until 6 years old, Jamal lived in six different placements until Sadie Bates, his aunt, found him and took him into her home. He lauds his aunt for devoting her life to raising him well. At the age of 10, due in large part to her, Jamal realized that he wanted to make an impact on the world. “My Aunt Sadie was my motivation,” says Jamal. “No matter what issues she was dealing with, she would always rise above them. She was my real-life super woman. There is no way that I could pay her back for making such a difference in my life, but I can show her that I understood her plan for me.”
Jamal’s plan was unlike most others in his neighborhood, where the only “successful” individuals were drug dealers. His plan was to rise above it all. Today, Jamal is an adoption specialist for the Richland County Department of Social Services. It is a job he considers a dream come true because it allows him to help children find their forever home. “My heart goes out to my clients because I was once in their shoes,” says Jamal. “Being in the custody of DSS is a traumatic experience filled with low self-esteem while searching for a loving family.” The lack of being placed in a home often plays a large part in the children’s behavior, self-esteem, and academics. Jamal understands feeling hopeless and unloved, as he experienced these same feelings as a child.
Jamal has taken his passion for giving back and started the Stroud Scholastic Scholarship for students in need at Allen University, where he received his undergraduate degree with magna cum laude distinction. “As a student, there were many hungry nights because I did not have the financial means for a meal. I just want to be a blessing now to students who are in need,” he says. Jamal also started the “Big Homie Lil’ Homie” mentoring program to fill in the gap for the many missing fathers or role models in his community. It is just another way he is helping at-risk kids.
Jamal’s efforts have made a lasting mark on many. “One of my Lil’ Homies told me that I was the best thing that ever happened to him since his dad left his mother,” says Jamal. “He told me that he was going to commit suicide one day before his mother signed him up for the mentoring program. I have connected with my Lil’ Homies because I too come from a background without a positive male role model in my life.”
Jamal also works with at-risk children who are dealing with drug usage. As a child growing up around drugs, Jamal lost many family members and friends to this battle. Helping to change just one kid’s life is worth the effort.
While Jamal’s profession sounds challenging and somewhat sad, for him the rewards are plentiful –– the greatest being seeing the smile on children’s faces at the end of the process. “Finding a forever home for a child makes my heart smile. There is no amount of money that could re-create that feeling for me,” he says.
With all of this responsibility, Jamal still makes an effort to volunteer in the community and remains interested in the National Alliance on Mental Illness. When he was young, doctors and teachers told his aunt that he was going to be mentally challenged and would need to be in self-contained classes. “My aunt and God had a different plan for my life,” says Jamal. That plan includes graduating from Lenoir-Rhyne University next May, where he will be receiving his Masters in Mental Health Counseling. He is interested in furthering his education and hopes to start his Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina so he can continue to bring more awareness to mental health. He would also like to open a center for homeless individuals. There is truly no stopping Jamal Stroud. Aunt Sadie knew it all along.
The impact one person is making on another can never be underestimated. For Madison Dinkins, it was her small group leader, McKinsey Cook, at church who was committed to helping children living on the streets in Uganda. When McKinsey tragically died in a car accident in 2015, Madison wanted to carry on her legacy of helping children in need right here in Columbia.
Madison created a program called The Birthday Box. Through this program, wrapped birthday gifts are placed in homeless shelters throughout Columbia so that when a child living in one of the shelters has a birthday, he or she has something to celebrate and a gift to open. The gifts are labeled by age and gender, so that the child receives something suitable.
The program has been so successful that Madison currently has birthday boxes in five shelters in Columbia with plans to add more. “The most difficult and challenging part of creating and growing my program was getting shelters involved in the beginning since they did not know what it was,” says Madison. “Once I got a few shelters on board, it was much easier to talk to other shelters to also get them involved.”
Creating a successful program such as this is no small feat, especially for a teenager in high school. Not only is Madison committed to growing The Birthday Box, she is also active in her school and the community, volunteering for the Ronald McDonald House, promoting and raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and raising money for the Children’s Miracle Network.
“Ever since I was a child, my family and I have always done things for other people, so I’ve grown up being involved in community service and doing things for those less fortunate,” says Madison. “I think it’s really important to do things for other people because life should be about having a servant’s heart.”
Being able to see firsthand the positive results of helping others has been so fulfilling for Madison. She had the opportunity to attend a small birthday party for one of the children living in a family shelter. She was able to give the child a gift out of The Birthday Box and watch him open it. “Seeing the smile on his face was so rewarding and made me feel like I helped make his birthday extra special,” remembers Madison.
Madison has plans to grow The Birthday Box throughout South Carolina and possibly in other states. She encourages younger people to get out and help others as the impact it has had on her is as great as the impact it has had on the children. “I think it’s important for young people to give back to their community,” she says. “It teaches at a younger age that it’s not always about you, and you can help others in need. It’s a great feeling to put a smile on the face of someone you don’t even know. I want more young people to see how that feels!” Both the young and the young at heart should take note.
Dr. March Seabrook with CIG
The physicians at Consultants in Gastroenterology are making a difference in the lives of South Carolinians through screening colonoscopies to prevent deadly colon cancer on behalf of those who lack health insurance to pay for the procedure. This year alone in South Carolina, more than 2,000 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed, and 800 deaths from the disease will occur. While it is deadly, it is also preventable, and Consultants in Gastroenterology is committed to its prevention. For more than 26 years, the physicians at the practice have been making strides not only to prevent the disease, but also to raise awareness among all populations.
“As prevalent as colon cancer is, it is a success story in South Carolina,” says March Seabrook, a physician at CIG. “The rate of colon cancer is decreasing overall. It is a preventable cancer, but it is critical that everyone be screened to help reduce the number of incidences.”
The team at CIG has long understood that not everyone has insurance and can afford to be screened. “In people who undergo a screening colonoscopy in our practice, about 35 to 45 percent of them have pre-cancerous polyps. We remove them, and that prevents the cancer. Polyps are very common. If we find cancer early, there is a greater than 90 percent chance it will be cured.”
To help with that effort, about 15 years ago, Dr. Seabrook and his team created a program called FANNi, which stood for Friday At Noon or Nine. He clarifies: “If they had diabetes we would do it at nine, otherwise at noon.” The team identifies underserved people in the community who would not have an opportunity to get screened, and they do the procedure at no cost to the patient.
This program has since become a part of the South Carolina Colon Cancer Prevention Network, which is now a part of the USC Center for Colon Cancer Research. Today, nearly half of the 160 gastroenterologists across the state are participating in the program. The patients are identified through free clinics around the state and then directed into the gastroenterologists’ offices. While the team at CIG is quick to not take credit for this, their efforts and their relationship with USC helped expand this program into the one it is today –– a program that touches every county in the state. To date, more than 350 colonoscopies have been provided to underserved and uninsured patients; at least 1,500 people have been screened.
CIG has also donated significant funds to the CCCR, as well as developed, designed and implemented numerous programs to educate South Carolinians about colon cancer. While many think colon cancer is more prevalent in men, Dr. Seabrook says that could not be further from the truth. “It’s more like 52 percent men, 48 percent women,” he says. “Colon cancer does not discriminate against gender or ethnicity.”
With a simple procedure, South Carolinians could prevent this deadly disease. It is this effort that keeps Dr. Seabrook hopeful. “When you find pathology and pre-cancerous polyps in someone who has been screened, it’s so gratifying to know that they have just prevented themselves from getting this disease,” he says. Without question, many Columbia residents owe their lives to the efforts of the team at CIG.
Columbia is fortunate to have people such as Kassy, Jamal, Madison, and the team at CIG as examples of the positive impact that coming together can have on the community. Serving others instead of self — Columbia needs more of it. The world needs more of it.
Please join Columbia Metropolitan Magazine and Central Carolina Community Foundation on Thursday, Nov. 2 at 701 Whaley to celebrate this year’s Best of Philanthropy winners. For tickets, call (803) 254-5601 or purchase them online at YourFoundation.org/community-impact/Best-Philanthropy-Awards