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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Students forge bond while serving others

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There is an infectious, almost giddy energy that envelopes Ayat Soufan and Khristian Curry whenever they are together.

They can’t help it, they say. They are happy when they are around each other.

But they are more than inseparable friends. Thanks to the Bonner Leaders Program at the Campus Y, they are also deeply committed allies in the work of helping others.

The pair met three years ago as first-year students at the Campus Y during an icebreaker event that split the big group into groups of three, where each person was asked to share an interesting personal fact.

Only problem was, neither Soufan nor Curry thought what the other had to say was all that interesting.

“Ayat talked about how she slept on the floor in her dorm because her bed was stacked so high she was afraid she would fall out,” Curry said.

And “Khristian talked about how her favorite color was pink and all the things in her room that were pink. That made me think about how much I didn’t like pink,” Soufan replied.

It was only after they became involved with Heavenly Groceries (La Comida Celestial in Spanish), a food bank of St. Joseph CME Church on Rosemary Street, that the two began to feel the pull of friendship.

The program provides food donations to community members in need. Unlike many other food banks, it allows people to select their own food.

“It was really ridiculous because Ayat was driving the church van around town to pick up food,” Curry said. “It was a huge van and she was jumping curbs all over the place and we were just laughing the whole time. I feel like that’s when we really connected.”

Developing new leaders

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Ayat Soufan, seated at left, and Khristian Curry, seated at right, greet residents as they select food at the Heavenly Groceries food bank, which operates daily from the basement of St. Joseph CME Church on Rosemary Street.

It was Richard Harrill who wanted to look into the Bonner Leaders Program shortly after he became director of the Campus Y in 2009, said Lucy Lewis, the Y’s assistant director. Carolina joined the program’s network in 2011 and Lewis was named to lead it.

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Soufan and Curry chat with food bank volunteers.

She and Harrill were interested in the program because it would create opportunities for students from low-income families not only to get involved with public service projects, but also to stay involved and actually lead the efforts over the course of their college careers.

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Residents pick through fresh fruit and vegetables.

Students in the program use their work-study hours to make a four-year commitment to local community partners. They are also part of a student development approach that includes weekly reflections, capacity-building workshops and critical issues seminars.

“When Richard returned to UNC, he saw that the more affluent students tended to be the leaders, and he wanted to broaden that,” Lewis said. “We set out to increase the socioeconomic diversity, and tied to that the racial and ethnic diversity of our Y leadership.”

Soufan and Curry were among the 12 students involved in the inaugural class. Thirteen were added the following year and 14 more this fall. The two young women are among the 11 Carolina Covenant Scholars in the program.

Last academic year, the group logged approximately 5,000 community service hours with 12 community partners in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community.

“Ayat and Khristian are exemplars of what our program has achieved,” Lewis said. “They are inseparable. They hang out on and off campus and do everything together. They are like Mutt and Jeff.”

The Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation of Prince-ton, N.J., began the Bonner Scholars Organization in 1990 at Berea College in rural Tennessee to recognize and reward scholarship based on community engagement.

In the late 1990s, the foundation developed the Bonner Leaders Program to expand its service-based scholarship programs to other universities, using federal work-study funds, AmeriCorps Education Awards and institutional support to fund the program.

Historically, the program has been introduced at small, private liberal-arts colleges around the country, but Lewis hopes the success of the program at Carolina could lead to its adoption across the UNC system.

The Bonner network now encompasses more than 80 colleges and universities and supports more than 3,000 students each year. Besides Carolina, the other North Carolina schools involved are Davidson, Mars Hill, Warren Wilson and Guilford colleges. But Lewis is convinced that number will grow.

She and Harrill have already discussed that idea with UNC President Tom Ross.

“We want the other schools in the system to see this as an opportunity for their low-income students – who have to work to finance their education – to be able to develop leadership skills in the process,” she said.

Climbing the same mountain

bonner3_400Although they are different in many ways, Soufan and Curry discovered they have a lot in common.

Both feel an immeasurable debt to their parents and the sacrifices they made to give their children opportunities they never had.

Curry said her mom married at 19, then moved around the world with her father as they raised their three daughters. The military eventually moved them to Fayetteville where Curry graduated from high school.

Soufan’s father was a Palestinian born in Israel, who moved to Rocky Mount to open a convenience store he called “Sammy’s.” He met her mother, who was from Cleveland, during a visit overseas. They married and returned to Rocky Mount to raise their family.

“From an early age, it was emphasized that my dad was working to make sure we could go to college and have the opportunities they never had,” Soufan said. “That is something I have carried with me ever since – the idea that I’m going to college to make a name for myself and achieve my goals.”

With the Bonner Leaders Program, the two young women have continued to achieve their goals together.

In their second year, they recruited more than 20 volunteers to assist with Heavenly Groceries, which serves as many as 100 people a day. Together, they also developed a volunteer manual with maps, contact information and volunteer biographies.

This summer, they wrote and won a $3,500 grant to support Heavenly Groceries’ mission. The previous summer, they went on a seven-day hike in the Pisgah National Forest that tested them in unprecedented ways.

“At one point, the trail we were on was blocked by a fallen tree so we had to scale the side of the mountain,” Curry said. “It began raining and I was slipping on rocks, and I just started crying and crying. Ayat looked over at me and she started crying, too.”

The pair has done everything together – including making it to the top.

Learn more about the Carolina Bonner Leaders program.