When Gwendolyn Hooker was a student at Kalamazoo Central High School, she dreamed of attending Western Michigan University.

“I lived on the Eastside and I would always hear the band playing,” she said. “I told myself, I want to go there.”

The ability to earn scholarships as an adult is one of many factors that brought her to where she is today: a dedicated community leader nearing completion of a degree from her dream school.

Since 1993, the Duane Roberts Scholarship has been awarded annually to Kalamazoo Public School seniors and graduates who show a commitment to social justice and community service. Roberts was known for his community activism. He was also a Kalamazoo Public Schools graduate and member of the KPS Board of Education.

Gwendolyn is one of many Duane Roberts Scholarship recipients that are influential leaders in our community. She is executive director of Helping People Exceed thru Navigation (H.O.P.E thru Navigation) and co-founder of Justice Against Bullying at School (JABS).

“For me, leadership means being connected to the community. Advocating for marginalized populations. Consistency, reliability and investing in the community for the long term.”

- Gwendolyn Hooker

And her work reflects that. H.O.P.E thru Navigation connects individuals with criminal backgrounds and/or substance misuse disorders to services that promote a stable life. JABS gives students the tools to cope with and end bullying that occurs in school, and outside of school.

The work is heavy, but she finds joy, energy and motivation in the people she engages.

“Success stories keep me going because we serve populations with the statistics stacked against them. Finding people good paying jobs, and affordable, safe housing...seeing the work come together and people noticing an improvement in their life is one of my biggest joys.”

Gwendolyn also says working with youth for JABS is a highlight. “They keep me young, and they are always so joyful! When we paused for COVID, I received Facebook messages from kids asking me when we were going to start back. Those are the little things that mean a lot to me.”

As a Kalamazoo native, Gwendolyn sees endless opportunities to improve this community, but says there is a lot of good happening.

“I love the commitment so many people and organizations have to a more inclusive and equitable community. In the past, some have had a very narrow view of what community is and now that is expanding.”

Education without Exception

Many events brought Gwendolyn to where she is presently, but she says a turning point was being able to get scholarships to go back to school.

“Going to WMU seemed like an impossible goal,” she said. “If you couldn’t afford it, you weren’t going. The day I got my scholarship and was able to enroll changed my life.”

Stories like Gwendolyn’s are often labeled “exceptional” – a term attached to individuals who are forced to overcome obstacles created by our poorly designed systems in order to access benefits others receive without facing similar barriers.

The mission of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation (KZCF) is mobilizing community to create just systems that allow resources, like education, to be accessible for all instead of a benefit for a few.

As KZCF strives to transform our systems for a better future, scholarship funds are supporting the dreams and aspirations of outstanding Kalamazoo County students right now.

If you’d like to learn more about setting up a scholarship fund, Beth Gregory-Wallis is ready to connect with you!

This article was featured in the latest issue of our UPDATE newsletter.
Read the full issue as a digital magazine.