Unity Club's persistence pays off

January 27, 2012

Elizabeth Hernandez, president of the HCC Unity Club, stands next to containers of can tabs.Ralph Johnson, center, holds a quilt made by families in the Our Place homeless shelter in 2004.

After nearly seven years of bake sales, candle sales, plant sales, raffles and other fundraisers, the HCC Unity Club has finally collected enough money to endow a scholarship in memory of one of the club's founding members.

The Ralph Johnson Humanitarian Scholarship will be awarded to an HCC student with a disability who has demonstrated a commitment to community service. Johnson was a founding member of the Unity Club (originally the Waiting to Excel Club), serving as its treasurer. He struggled with health and personal issues before and during his time as a student at HCC, including quadruple bypass surgery, three heart attacks, diabetes, the amputation of both legs and a stroke. He died on April 5, 2005.

"$15,000 is the minimum required to create an endowment," said Unity Club advisor Dorothy Blair.

At the time of Johnson's death, when club members first proposed the idea of endowing a scholarship, they were told not to bother, that it would take too long to raise the money and in the meantime people would forget about the person in whose name it was created. They were advised to raise money for a one-time scholarship instead. They refused and they never gave up.

"That was a motivator for us," said Elizabeth Hernandez, the Unity Club president.

Thanks to last fall's fundraising efforts, the Unity Club has finally surpassed the $15,000 threshold. The money now needs to sit in escrow for one year before the interest can be used to award a scholarship. However, Blair said money raised in excess of the $15,000 may be available to award a small, one-time stipend to a graduating HCC student this spring.

"That is our hope," she said.

Despite his health issues, Johnson's "close connection with the college and his determination to graduate from HCC remained the focus of his life," Blair said in a recollection of Johnson at the time of his death, "so much that he would not consider missing a class or club meeting."

"Ralph's devotion to HCC is a strong reminder of how important our roles are in the lives of others and just how much the campus community means to so many of our students," she said.

Besides putting aside money for the Johnson scholarship endowment, the Unity Club throughout the year also collects aluminum can tabs for Shriners Hospital and raises money for the Our Place Shelter/Red Cross Adopt-a-Family project and Wigs for Kids. To fulfill their community service requirement, other HCC clubs also hold their own fundraisers each year to help the Unity Club reach its goals.

"The good thing about the Unity Club is that we are entirely community service based," said Hernandez. "We don't go on trips. We don't raise money for ourselves. Everything we raise is for a project we are undertaking."

One of the club's biggest fundraisers is the Wigs for Kids campaign. The club's goal is to collect 15 ponytails this semester and raise $1,500 to allow the club to "adopt" its 8th child. The club's annual "Cut-a-Thon" will be held May 2, in conjunction with Spring Fling. Professional volunteer hairstylists will be on campus all day. "Anyone can come and get a professional cut and style for a $10 donation," Blair said.

To date, the Unity Club has raised more than $10,000 and collected more than 300 ponytails for the Wigs for Kids program, which uses the hair to create custom prostheses for children who have lost their hair due to illness or accidents.

"The first year we did Wigs for Kids was 2004," Blair said. "Ralph was involved and we raised $100."

Photos: (Left) Unity Club president Elizabeth Hernandez stands beside jugs filled with aluminum can tabs the club has collected for Shriners Hospital. (Right) Ralph Johnson, center, holds a quilt made by families at the Our Place Shelter in Holyoke surrounded by other founding members of the original Waiting to Excel Club, from left to right: Annette Davis-Harris, president; Barbara Cadarette, vice president; Cheryl Beck, secretary; and Dorothy Blair, staff advisor.


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