Meet the 2022 Upstander Award Winners

The Upstander Young Professional & Young Adult Awards recognize young individuals in the region who use their character strengths to be upstanders and make a difference in the community.

These are individuals who use VIA Character Strengths – such as leadership, teamwork, spirituality, kindness, and social intelligence – to impact the community for the better. From leading community-wide service projects to using their career to tackle societal issues, these individuals know the importance of giving back and helping others. They believe in the importance of fighting injustice and unfairness, and they’re willing to stand up for others and speak up when they see wrongdoing. They exemplify what it means to be an upstander.

Meet the 10 winners this year:

1. Erin Saul, Senior Community Relations Specialist, Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital

Erin serves as a Senior Community Relations Specialist at the Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Erin’s top character strength is leadership; that paired with her ability to thrive on a team has proven to be an impactful force in her work for social justice in our community. Using her strengths, she launched a neighbor-to-neighbor outreach team focused on reducing trauma and building community resilience in Avondale. Erin has worked alongside staff from Avondale Development Corporation (ADC) Quality of Life team to train 5 community members on the biologic impact of trauma and best practices related to trauma informed care in a community setting. The “trauma ambassador’s” goal is to connect with Avondale families impacted by traumatic events, provide trauma informed support, and connect to other resources as needed. Erin also serves as the Board of Trustees President for Upspring – a non-profit that empowers children experiencing homelessness in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky by providing opportunities through education and enrichment. While all of this sounds heavy, Erin continues to inspire others through her infectious joy and sense of hope. She is a true gift to the Cincinnati community with a contagious spirit that inspires all those who are fortunate enough to encounter this incredible young professional.

What motivates you to make a difference in the community? 

When I get discouraged and feel like we’re going backwards as a country, I think about the folks who have been working to undo white supremacy in our country for decades, lifetimes, and generations. One of my favorite high school teachers, Mr. Lynn Volz, gave me a book called, The Impossible Will Take a Little While by Paul Loeb. I always go back to stories, poems and essays in that book to get grounded in the history of hope. I’ve read Martín Espada’s poem Angels of Bread  from that book hundreds of times, and it always reminds me that change starts with a vision for a different future:

If the abolition of slave-manacles 

began as a vision of hands without manacles,

then this is the year;

if the shutdown of extermination camps

began as imagination of a land 

without barbed wire or the crematorium,

then this is the year;

if every rebellion begins with the idea 

that conquerors on horseback are not many-legged gods, that they too drown

if plunged in the river, 

then this is the year.

The simple fact that we as a community embrace a collective vision for a more equitable future means that we, like those who came before us, are harbingers of change… and that is an encouraging thought.

What advice do you have for individuals hoping to change the community for the better? 

My advice for folks who want to work on equity or social justice issues in their community is to start with self-reflection. Owning the intersectional power & privilege dynamics within my identities helped me be authentic and humble in this work. Also, find a mentor! I am so grateful for the many patient mentors who showed me (and often corrected me) on what it looks like to show up humbly, without predetermined solutions, to listen and learn before trying to work toward change. 

2. Kendra Sauro, Law Student at NKU Salmon P. Chase College of Law

Kendra Sauro is a law student at Northern Kentucky University Salmon P. Chase College of Law. Since moving to Northern Kentucky, she has volunteered her time working at an emergency homeless shelter to help support, protect, and uplift survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Kendra has also recently created a representative position within NKU for the law school, with the Norse Violence Prevention Center because she noticed there was a disconnect between law students and resources for domestic and sexual violence. When she sees an issue, she will do what she can to fix it. Outside of Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, Kendra has served in two AmeriCorps cohorts, working with underrepresented and underserved populations, teaching financial literacy, and working with children in poverty. She has interned at Public Advocates in Community Reentry in Indianapolis to help recently released individuals construct resumes so they can maneuver certain barriers society places in front of them. She will continue to do amazing work in Cincinnati throughout her law school career, and she strives to end up at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center when she graduates, so she may continue to do her work within Cincinnati.

What motivates you to make a difference in the community? 

My biggest motivation to make a difference in the community is that I want to be able to look my future children in the eyes and tell them I did absolutely everything I could to make sure they were able to live safe and free. They should be able to experience life without the fear of poverty, discrimination, violence, or of being stripped of their rights. It’s impossible for me to sit back and watch as those who don’t fit into the cis, white male, heteronormative ideal are attacked and denied basic human decency. I see people, every single day, who have had their voices viciously ripped away from them because their words deviate from what society deems important or “acceptable.” Knowing that motivates me to get up and be the advocate I am. I strive to uplift oppressed voices, and push for the reality of the need for change to bellow through the streets of America.

What advice do you have for individuals hoping to change the community for the better?

My most important piece of advice for individuals hoping to change the community for the better is to believe in yourself! There will be a lot of people who don’t believe in your cause and may try to tear down your hopes and your confidence. Something I’ve been told by numerous people is that I’m only one person, and I can’t reasonably believe I would be able to make that much of a difference alone. Don’t listen to them! Take what they say and prove them wrong. All it takes is one person to create a domino effect. It takes one survivor to speak up to give courage to others to do the same. Use your voice, use your passion, educate others, and go create the change as one person. Be the one who dared to pave the way for those around you and for those who come after you. Change is empowering. Change is necessary. 

3. Dr. Anna Goroncy, Geriatric Fellowship Program Director, Assistant Professor, at UC College of Medicine and The Christ Hospital Health Network

Dr. Anna Goroncy is Geriatric Fellowship Program Director, Assistant Professor, at UC College of Medicine and The Christ Hospital Health Network. Dr. Goroncy has spent her career standing up for communities and individuals who are overlooked by the greater society. This takes bravery, humility, leadership, perseverance, and curiosity. As a doctor, she implemented a model of home care allowing her to reach homebound older adults who had significant challenges accessing the healthcare system. This work helped identify a problem with food insecurity. She recruited a team and applied for a local grant with the focus of addressing food insecurity working in partnership with the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Fund. The grant helped to improve access to food as well as provide cooking classes to underserved populations. Because minority populations are at greater risk of experiencing food insecurity, her work has shifted to include health equity and anti-racism initiatives. This has included initiatives for more equal access to COVID vaccines including weekly events the Walnut Hills neighborhood and townhalls to address the understandable mistrust some minority communities have with the healthcare system. She developed a partnership with Center for Closing the Health Gap to work on eliminating health disparities. She partnered with others to create a healthcare pipeline program with students from Walnut Hills High School and Douglas Elementary. She joined committees and task forces within the health system to raise issues about microaggressions, systems of unequal power, disparities in health outcomes, and bias in medicine. It took perseverance and courage to see it through as well as the willingness to look within, to humbly model what it means to listen and elevate patient and community voice, and a deep desire to want to understand better. In all that she does, Dr. Goroncy leads with an empathetic heart and mind.

What motivates you to make a difference in the community? 

My faith and belief in the possibility and calling toward a community where all can thrive motivates me to work and learn alongside others to work towards healing and restoration in the community. In my faith, we talk about the Beloved Community, described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a community in which everyone is cared for, absent of poverty, hunger, and hate, characterized by inclusivity and love. I’ve also been captivated by the idea of Shalom, which I understand as not just peace but wholeness and restoration. I believe we each can be a part of this kind of healing. 

What advice do you have for individuals hoping to change the community for the better?

My advice is to start small, start local and listen, listen, listen. It’s easy to focus on action, or alternatively be overwhelmed and not know where to start, especially in times as challenging and relentless as these. Yet you likely can help to meet a need in your current community, whether that’s your neighborhood, work or school. Presence and consistency is more important and longer lasting than quick, big action. 

4. Dr. Christian Gausvik, Family Medicine Physician & Geriatrician at The Christ Hospital Health Network

Dr. Christian Gausvik, a Family Medicine Physician & Geriatrician at The Christ Hospital Health Network. Before he became a doctor, Christian’s first job at 15 years old was working in an assisted living home and from that day on, he has been dedicated to the older-adult community. Dr. Gausvik spends much of his time serving Cincinnati as president and co-founder of the Giving Voice Foundation. The foundation aims to inspire cross-generational conversations and connection to improve the health of older adults through advocacy, education, engagement, and storytelling. Dr. Gausvik has already accomplished so much to improve the lives of the often-vulnerable older adult population, including publishing research on social isolation and health outcomes. His passion and devotion to effecting change in Cincinnati for this often-forgotten population can be seen by the way he cares for and connects with patients, and through the Giving Voice Foundation, about which Dr. Gausvik says: “We believe physicians have a responsibility to use their voice to advocate for patients and help amplify the sometimes quiet voices of patients in today’s healthcare system. Above all we believe in telling the unique stories of older adults by amplifying their voices when those voices have been stolen by disease, poverty or isolation.” His dedication to both the older adult population  and the LGBTQ community in Cincinnati exemplifies the use of fairness and justice as character strengths.

What motivates you to make a difference in the community?

I have forever felt motivated to make change based on my interactions with others. Whether that has been experiences with older adult patients or with my fellow LGBTQ+ community, it has been learning the stories of others, hearing their successes and working to understand their struggles that has fueled my passion. That combined with an incredible sense of connection to the strong fabric of the Cincinnati community along with the enjoyment I get from connecting with others on a team has pushed me over and over to find solutions and make change.  

What advice do you have for individuals hoping to change the community for the better?

If you have an idea, if you see a gap, if you feel a passion or a calling to make a difference in some way take the time to act on it. Often times we allow ourselves to be held back by self-doubt, or fear of failure and in my experience when you have a true passion for change and a desire to help others and when you allow that to show others will be inspired to help. Only through inspiring a team, finding those connections and really living your passion can we continue to change the community for the better. Place the fear aside, overcome the procrastination and find the people who will lift you up – they are out there. 

5. Rev. Kate Smith, Pastor of Mission & Outreach for Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church

Rev. Kate Smith is the Pastor of Mission & Outreach for Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church. Kate has made an extraordinary impact on the Cincinnati community. Through her role as Pastor of Mission & Outreach at Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church, Kate has developed several programs that offer resources to the Cincinnati community, both by meeting needs of those who lack access to food security, educational resources, and housing, but also by educating members in her congregation about the injustices that exist in our own community. In the early height of the COVID-19 pandemic when schools in Cincinnati had closed their doors to shift to virtual learning, Kate quickly organized a multi-site food distribution program that ensured local kids could still access lunch each day. Understanding that many local students count on their daily free or reduced school lunches as a main source of nourishment, some not having secure access to food at home, Kate designed a program that would meet this need, and enlisted local volunteers to help. As the dark realities of racial injustice in the U.S. came to the forefront again in 2020, Kate organized and co-led a study for the young adult group at Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church, to ensure that young people had a place to learn, mourn, and build the skills to become anti-racism advocates. Regardless of her audience or fears of how people might respond, Kate always seeks justice and never fails to be the person in the room who ensures social justice is top-of-mind in any conversation. Her consistent allyship with marginalized groups is driven by her faith, her compassion, and her deep belief in equity for all.

What motivates you to make a difference in the community? 

As a child, my leaning towards justice and compassion was very evident in my thoughts and actions. As an adult, I realize now that having a compassionate heart that yearns for justice is an instrinstic characteristic of the person God wired me to be. Today, I am continuously motivated to make a difference in the community when I see glimpses of the Kin-dom of God being realized here on Earth, as we work together challenging the status quo moving us to build a different and better community all together.  

What advice do you have for individuals hoping to change the community for the better?

I am deeply inspired by the African proverb, “If you to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” My advice for individuals hoping to change the community for the better is to find people to work alongside. You will find you are not only transformed by the work you do, but also by the people you serve with. 

6. Allison JoAnn Lester, Director of Design & Impact at ISH

Allison JoAnn Lester is an educator and Director of Design & Impact at Jeiwsh arts organization ISH. AlliJo Lester created the Teen Think Tank, or T3, an opportunity for teens to design and implement strategies to make Cincinnati a more inclusive and engaging place to be a Jewish teen. She provides support and guidance to help them turn their ideas into meaningful actions. She has worked to make a better place for everyone in Cincinnati and directly improved the lives of many people in her community. Her capacity for listening to and understanding others is incomparable. Under her leadership, the T3 interns have designed programs that many Cincinnati youths have enjoyed. AlliJo has also worked with BreakThrough Cincinnati, an organization which aims to energize underrepresented aspirational students to enter college with confidence. They are taught and nurtured by service-minded young adults and encouraging families. During a meeting for Breakthrough Cincinnati in which many preservice teachers were feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, and defeated, AlliJo was completely open with these preservice teachers, telling a story of a similar time in her professional career in which she struggled to see her impact and worth. She encouraged the preservice teachers to trust themselves and those who believed in them, assuring them that their impacts were tangible and significant. This is an example of how she empowers others.

What motivates me to make a difference in the community?

I want to leave this world better than I found it; knowing we are more loving, inclusive, and caring to each other and the earth. My values are my compass guiding me in this quest on dark days – days when I see the hard road to change ahead – and days full of light. I am lost without my values, because everything I do is grounded in intention. The intentions to repair the world (tikkun olam), to do the least harm and act with love, to challenge, speak up and disrupt, and to have patience to slow down, listen and learn. My values and intentions ground me while the people I surround myself with, my tribe, motivate me. I am especially inspired by the voices of young people. They are anchors of hope and wisdom. Much of my work is creating spaces with teens so their voices can be amplified and promote positive change in their community. 

What advice do I have for others to make a difference?

Listen to the people who say you can’t make a difference. The ones who tell you to “give up” and “quit while you’re ahead.” Ask them why. Remember their answers.

Listen to the people who are indifferent, apathetic. The ones who tell you, “What’s the point of it anyway?” “It’s too hard.” Ask them why. Remember their answers.

Listen to the people who say you can. The ones who say, “Keep going!” “You will make a difference.” Ask them why. Remember their answers.

Finally, take all the answers you’ve heard from the challengers and supporters then go into a quiet room within yourself and listen. Listen to yourself for you all have all the answers and more you need.

Then keep going, you will make a difference.

7. Ella Dastillung, Co-Founder & Director of Transform

Ella Dastillung is the Co-Founder and Director of Transform, which provides free wardrobes, head to toe, for transgender and gender non-conforming youth. At the age of 20, Ella embodies belief in action through her tireless work at Transform, where her staff and volunteers curate new wardrobes for youth in transition to their most authentic selves. Ella’s mother, Nancy Dawson, passed away in 2019, taken too soon by cancer. Ella and her mother founded this organization and community effort together two years prior. By empowering and encouraging these trans individuals through donations, Ella creates awareness and actions in others and builds community with events and engagement. Ella previously was president of the Oak Hills High School Gay-Straight-Alliance for two years. She learned how to work with other LGBTQ+ teens and ran events, such as a counter-protest of the Westboro Baptist Church at her school in 2017. Ella graduated from the School for Creative and Performing Arts in 2020 and currently attends the University of Cincinnati. Ella lives her mother’s and her own legacy every single day, and she says she is motivated by the possibility of creating a better world for future Cincinnatians, even in small ways.

What motivates you to make a difference in the community?

I am motivated by the possibility of creating a better world for future Cincinnatians, even in small ways. I think of who I was when I was 13, and how it felt to be closeted and unsure of my place in the world. I want to create spaces and opportunities for young people, and especially LGBTQ+ youth, to find community and belonging. Making an impact on their lives and a place where they can feel safe and celebrated, even in small ways day to day, is so special to me. 

What advice do you have for individuals hoping to change the community for the better?

Enthusiasm can make up for anything you feel like you lack. While experience can give you great skills, being passionate about something is what will allow you to get started. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not ready for something and don’t let fear of timing not being right get in the way. If you have an idea that you think would better the lives of others, do it with whatever resources you have at the moment and find other people with the skills you don’t yet have to come help you! If you want to change the community that means you will have a community of other enthusiastic people to work with and collaborate with.

8. Jordan Bankston, Founder & CEO of Forever Kings, Inc.

Jordan Bankston is Founder and CEO of Forever Kings Inc., which exists to create a culture of brotherhood among young men of color while providing dynamic tools and resources that empower them to redefine, reshape, and reimagine the outcomes for their lives. Since its inception in 2019, the organization continues to grow. Forever Kings now has 3 school based collaborations and has corporate sponsors. So far, FK has had a 100% high school graduation rate for all its seniors and continues to set the bar of academic achievement at a high level for all members. He launched FK in the fall of 2019, just several months before the COVID-19 pandemic created unimaginable challenges. Through it all, Jordan has persevered and continued providing leadership to the hundreds of young men that he has encountered through his programming. Even in the midst of the pandemic, while schools and businesses were shutting down, Jordan and his Kings were distributing groceries to communities in need. He is always setting the example of what a man should be and how he should comport himself in a variety of situations. Jordan is a servant first and a leader second. He would never ask any young man to do something he isn’t willing to do himself. We need more individuals like Jordan in Cincinnati.

What motivates you to make a difference?

My motivation for serving this community comes from the fact that it used to be me and my family that needed the support. Now sitting on the other side of the table I have the opportunity to be what I/we never had! 

9. Michael Young, Study Hall Executive Director

Michael Young is Executive Director of StudyHall, an organization that provides free, virtual, one-on-one support to increase students’ reading skills, provided by qualified and screened volunteer tutors. He started his own nonprofit focused on providing enhanced digital learning opportunities to children in public schools and has made a measurable impact on CPS students. Through his work, Michael has connected hundreds of young adults to volunteer opportunities throughout the region in support of some of the most vulnerable populations in our area. Michael’s continual leadership in the nonprofit space is exemplary. Notably, he led Give Back Cincinnati as the President during COVID-19 and was not only able to keep an organization which requires in-person service together, but maintain its viability and set it up for success as the pandemic eased. Without his leadership, GBC might not have survived the pandemic. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder while the country simultaneously battled the COVID-19 crisis, Michael worked with his Give Back Cincinnati leadership team to host a virtual session that focused on racial justice, systemic racism, and hearing the authentic stories of individuals who have experienced that trauma. Through his work in the nonprofit community, Michael maintains this focus on justice and individual rights and tries to make the region, and the world, a better place

What motivates you to make a difference in the community?

A deep-seated love of bears, the environment, and learning. 

What advice do you have for individuals hoping to change the community for the better?

Find, or create a group of, the people dedicated to making the community a better place.  Long-term change only happens with a succession plan.

10. Moriyah Skinner, Student at the University of Cincinnati

Moriyah Skinner is a student at the University of Cincinnati, studying medical science with a minor in public health. She volunteers for Josephine’s Mission, a coalition of volunteer medical and trauma care professionals who serve victims of human trafficking and violence while providing interprofessional, victim-centered, compassionate, holistic, and trauma-informed care. Moriyah has been instrumental in so many areas of the clinic’s operations, including making blankets for outreach, data collection, sponsoring food drives, hosting fundraisers, and recruiting new volunteers. She is always looking for ways to help those in need, assisting with education of the public to help spread awareness about the issues associated with sex trafficking such as drug use, serial incarceration, and mental illness. She gives care and respect to each person, however they present. She truly understands the meaning of trauma informed care. Moriyah believes that every single person is valuable and worthy of freedom, love, and acceptance no matter who they are, what they own, what they look like, or what they do. Moriyah is not only a full time student and dedicated volunteer, but she is also an employee at Children’s Hospital as a research assistant. She plans to earn her PhD in public health.

What motivates you to make a difference in the community? 

What motivates me to make a difference in the community is understanding that every single person is valuable and worthy of freedom, love, and acceptance no matter who they are, what they own, what they look like, or what they do. It is easy to get caught up in material things and judge our own worth and other people’s worth based on societal standards of success, but one of the most important things to do is remember empathy. People are not defined by one moment or one thing, but all of us have a story that affects who we are today and a divine purpose that is always in us no matter what we have done. Believing that no one is too far gone and that everyone deserves healing from their past and support for their future gives me hope that if I did not grow up with the family and resources I had and fell into situation that I could not get out of on my own, someone would see past my flaws, remind me of my value and purpose, and give me the helping hand I needed to get back up. I want to be the person that I needed when I was young and follow the lead of those I have met, like Rosanne Hountz, the president of Josephine’s Clinic, that have inspired me to make a difference based on their own positive impact on the community, and I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to do so. 

What advice do you have for individuals hoping to change the community for the better?

My advice for individuals hoping to change the community for the better is first to find healing and purpose in yourself first. As humans, we cannot pour from an empty cup and must make sure we are taking care of ourselves first and acting out of a love that we do not lack. Next, is to educate yourself on community statistics and learn to help people in a way that they want and need to be helped. A big lesson I learned is that if we just assume we know who people are and what is best for them without taking the time to learn, we can sometimes do more harm than good. Lastly, is to partner up and reach out to people or organizations in your community who may need help or would like to offer help. There is always a spot to be filled and a project to do, and making a difference is a group effort that is most effective when we collaborate with others.

Other nominees include: Verjine Adanalian, Louise Anderson, Saijal Andreadis, Clare Zlatic Blankemeyer, Dinushki De Livera, Aaron Glauberman, Alexandria Henderson, Dani Isaacsohn, Jordan Klette-Cusher, Hailey Kramer, Ariela Kurtzer, Justin Levy, Megan Mitchell, Nancy Paraskevopoulos, Brittany Pavely, Noah Pinales, Rachel Quinn, Claudia Uchtman, Roni Unger, Ajit Venkatakrishnan, Brianna Sanders Whitten, and Allen Woods.

ABOUT THE NANCY & DAVID WOLF HOLOCAUST & HUMANITY CENTER

The Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center exists to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust inspire action today. Located at Cincinnati’s historic Union Terminal, HHC educates more than 200,000 community members through its educational initiatives, innovative digital and in-person programs, virtual tours and partnerships. For more information, visit www.holocaustandhumanity.org.