Ten stories of people who made a difference in 2021

It was through individual efforts, working collaboratively, that Northern Kentucky saw secondary school advancements, a win for a men's shelter, a plan to welcome Afghan refugees, and more. Here are ten stories of people who made a difference during 2021.

‘Game changer’ teacher shepherds dual credit program

A collaboration between Kenton County Schools and Northern Kentucky University will result in the graduation of the first Young Scholars Academy class in May 2022. Under this innovative two-year program, 72 students have been simultaneously earning high school credit and college credit.

Amanda Dempsey, the academy’s early college supervisor, says the Kenton County students are “either working toward an associate's degree or the first two years of a bachelor's.” Fifty of these students are on track to receive their high school diplomas and an associate’s degree at the same time.

Amanda DempseyRecruiting for the first class amid a pandemic was a challenge, says Dempsey, who was the first in her family to complete college and who now holds a doctoral degree.

“We were trying to convince 16-year-olds and their parents that they need to come full time to a college campus in the middle of a pandemic, which rightfully made people a little bit nervous,” she says. “These kids are amazing. They took this huge leap of faith. I mean, they were in the middle of their sophomore year of high school,” Dempsey recalls.

On the upside, selected students were highly motivated and adapted well to a college setting, even if some of it was virtual. Learning to collaborate was key, says Dempsey, whose main goal is positioning students for success.

“Dr. Dempsey is a game changer in education,” says Francis O’Hara, director of districtwide programs and transition education for Kenton County Schools. “Her methods grow every scholar. The outcomes of high school scholars earning associate degrees and getting high ACT scores are great, but her work goes beyond. She leads them to building high self-esteem and being motivated to move forward to achieve their goals.”

Lawyer cuts through red tape to make men’s shelter a reality

A long-awaited shelter catering to vulnerable men who lack housing will become a reality in Northern Kentucky.

Danielle Amrine, CEO of Welcome House, gives credit to DBL attorney Chris Markus for making the planned men’s shelter a reality. “Back around 2018 we started to explore the possibility of getting a men's shelter for Northern Kentucky that was more long term. Instead of the night-by-night, it would be like someplace where somebody would have their own bed and meals and could get access to housing,” Amrine says. “We knew that that was really important not only for our mission to take people from homeless to home, but just our community,” Amrine adds.

Chris MarkusThe shelter is planned for Newport. Details are not yet available on a groundbreaking date.

Regarding efforts by Markus, a former board member, Amrine says, “I've never been so impressed with somebody’s willingness and dedication to really just go fight with us and stand up for our mission and represent us in the best way possible.”

Markus is a general litigation lawyer at DBL, a firm with a longstanding relationship with Welcome House. He believed in the need for a men’s shelter, and thought it was essential to cut through red tape to make it happen. He sees it as a positive not only for Welcome House but for the community at large.

“I can’t really explain it other than to say that it sort of grabbed me, and I’m just real passionate about it,” says Markus. The University of Kentucky fan lives in Bellevue with his family.

Since opening in 1982, Welcome House has a history of meeting challenges of the times. In 2020, five new shelter projects were developed, including the first-ever winter shelter in Boone County and creation of the first veterans’ shelter.

Life savers caught children dropped from burning apartment complex

The heroic actions of six Florence Police officers in an April 28, 2021, fire brought special recognition at a June 8 Florence City Council meeting.

Police Chief Tom Grau honored these six officers who responded to a devastating apartment early-morning fire at 6761 Parkland Place:
▪ Corporal Michael Gonterman
▪ Officer Kyle Sorensen
▪ Officer Chris Boone
▪ Officer Josh Dalton
▪ Officer Kelli Chapman
▪ Officer Derek Jackson

These officers immediately went toward the burning building and began to rescue residents who were trapped inside, Grau told City Council. Officers entered the building several times to assist residents, helped those who had to climb out of windows, and safely caught children who were dropped from the third story to safety.

These officers were presented the Lifesaver Award for their selfless actions that night that ensured that no lives were lost.

A Facebook “Mayor’s Message” on June 9 praised the men and women of Florence Police Department and the Florence Fire/EMS who responded to the fire call at the Champion Club apartments. “They run toward danger while others run away. Because of their actions that morning, no lives were lost,” the post read.

Carrying on the work of soclal justice through engagement

The racial justice movement in 2020 may have been eye-opening to many. After the George Floyd killing, protest marches happened in Northern Kentucky, uniting Blacks and Whites in Erlanger, Fort Mitchell, and Florence. But for civil rights leader Jerome Bowles, his work carries on. It follows decades of leading the NAACP here and consulting with police, education, and business on diversity issues.

“At some points in our society, we stopped listening to one another,” Bowles says of trying times in recent years. His message now is the same as before the national racial reckoning in 2020.

“The more we engage and continue to listen to one another, we can find some common ground,” Bowles says.

Jerome BowlesThe NAACP president has been praised by law enforcement for encouraging open and honest dialogue, community policing and how these efforts benefit everyone.

Meetings with Newport and Covington police departments have been productive. “We have law enforcement agencies who are willing to sit down with us. I know we have a great relationship with Newport police … We meet all the time with Covington Police Department, and they’re always accessible as well,” Bowles says.

Bowles has reached out to the Northern Kentucky Police Chiefs Association, to “make them aware that we’re available as needed.”

Since founding the Bowles Center for Diversity Outreach in 2005, he has worked to empower educators to close achievement gaps in education, emphasizing college and career readiness, leadership skills, and mentoring programs.

Bowles envisions a future of prosperity for all of Northern Kentucky – “We want as many businesses as possible,” he says -- and knows diversity is at the heart of that success.

Kenton librarian opens new avenues for job searchers

Not long after the Great Recession, a time of digital upheaval, where did folks in Kenton County go to research how to find a job? They went to the library.

“We saw so many people coming into the library looking for jobs (and thought) we can do more than we were doing, and that was 10 years ago,” says Natalie Ruppert, then a staff librarian. Today she is manager of Career and Job Services Division and Workforce Development at Kenton County Public Library.

It’s a sophisticated service in a library system ranked at the top in Kentucky.

“We help people from entry level all the way to people retiring, downsizing from six-figure jobs,” Ruppert says.

Natalie RuppertThe library is busy with GED classes, digital literacy classes, free classes galore. Ten volunteer coaches help people one-on-one with editing their resumes or prepping for job interviews. But Ruppert takes job hunting knowledge to a new level with the Northern Kentucky Accountability Group every Wednesday morning.

“That is what we consider our job search support group for professional level people that are in career transition, or anyone that wants to change careers, and it's held here at the Erlanger library in Bronte Hall,” Ruppert says.

Weekly speakers talk about topics and trends relevant to job searchers. A recent speaker: Fernando Figueroa, president of Gateway Community & Technical College. That’s followed by a roundtable where attendees introduce themselves and talk about roles they might be looking for.

In the past three years, over 425 people participating in the NKY Accountability Group have landed jobs with some 345 companies.

As for her own job, Ruppert says, “I feel I am one of those lucky people who is doing what God wants them to do.”

Visit “Job Search Central” for virtual interview tips, hiring events, past speaker recordings, and links to sign up for job search classes.

Refugee Connect welcomes those fleeing persecution and war

They flee militia attacks in the Congo, ethnic and religious persecution in Myanmar (formerly Burma), and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. They are refugees, people forced to leave their countries, then admitted here on humanitarian grounds.

Five refugees from Afghanistan arrived in Northern Kentucky last month, the first of 50 expected for resettlement. Kristin Burgoyne, of Hebron, is at the center of efforts to welcome them to our region.

Kristin BurgoyneRefugee Connect brought her on board last year to lead its mission of connecting refugees with resources to rebuild their lives as United States citizens. After vetting by the State Department and relocation by resettlement agencies, refugees need support. It might be as basic as signing up for the internet or making a doctor’s appointment, to as complex as filling out a college application or help dealing with torture-related traumas.

Burgoyne initiated a system of community navigators, cultural leaders from different refugee groups who provide direct support to families in their native language.

“That' s the most powerful thing we have done because it has really helped families not just survive, it has helped our families to get to a place where they can start to thrive and work toward their long-term goals,” Burgoyne says.

Refugee Connect supports families from Bhutan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burma, Togo, Mali, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
Northern Kentucky, with a growing refugee population of the Chin community from
Myanmar, Congolese, Somali, Afghans, and Spanish speakers, has received special focus from Refugee Connect. The agency recently signed a contract with Boone County Schools to help educators deal with growing refugee and immigrant concerns.

“We have done trainings in the last few months at the district level and we're also going more into individual schools, working with school staff,” she says. The goal is to help create a welcoming culture.

Providing accurate COVID data is pediatrician’s goal

A confluence of events put Dr. Shelly Voet in a pivotal role to help fellow pediatricians throughout the pandemic.

Dr. Voet, who practices at Pediatric Associates in Crestview Hills, had served on the Northern Kentucky Independent Health District’s board a few years pre-COVID. Then in April 2019 she took a “very part-time” position at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center as an executive community physician leader.

As a liaison between Children’s and community providers, the group sent regular
communications as COVID took hold in 2020. Pediatricians received the latest on best office practices, updates on clinical trials, testing, and eventually vaccines.

Dr. Shelly Voet“I think we were a source of reliable information,” Voet says of the group’s emails, which were daily at first but are now weekly. It was an effective way to share resources from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the states, she adds.

The biggest obstacles in educating about COVID? “At first it was uncertainty and now it’s misinformation,” Voet says.

Now that kids are getting vaccinated, Voet feels a sense of gratitude. “I am grateful for the science behind the vaccines. I am grateful for our staff, patients, and families for their belief in science and their efforts to help in combating COVID-19. I am grateful for all of my fellow pediatricians and their staff who have been consistently providing essential care to kids as well as providing accurate information. I am grateful for our public health partners.

“Finally, I am grateful for the support provided through (Children’s) to coordinate websites and emails for us to all stay up to date and share information,” Voet says.

Visit https://healthcollab.org/testandprotect/ for current pediatric vaccine information.

Engaging Hispanic families to join school programs

Educator Theresa Cruz has devoted most of her career to early childhood education, both in Puerto Rico and in Northern Kentucky.

That’s how Cruz came to Learning Grove, an education group formerly known as Children Inc. in Covington, which believes in high-quality, early education for all.

With her bilingual background, Cruz was picked to carry out a family engagement program for Hispanics in Northern Kentucky. It is a collaboration with the Prichard Committee, Kentucky’s education advocacy nonprofit.

Theresa CruzParents come to the classroom, sit with their child “and learn with their child and experience what their child was experiencing and then debrief and do things at home. It's a wonderful program,” Cruz says. English as a second language and life skills training round out the experience.

In 2019 the program had “pretty astronomical growth,” but took a hit during the pandemic. Lacking computers or a physical place to meet, parents were Zoom-resistant. Attendance dropped.

Cruz persisted. She enlisted the Commonwealth Institute of Parent Leadership to get a few Hispanic parents trained in family engagement, a concept aimed at increasing academic success in Kentucky. She reached out to Cristo Rey, the Hispanic church in Florence, speaking with parents after Masses. Numbers came back up now that they can meet in a school building.

Cruz has been encouraged to see Hispanic parents, who are not culturally accustomed to engaging with teachers, talk with them at the bus stop. And the love parents have for their children is nudging them to learn English.

“There are people that come to this class that have said, ‘I've lived here for 13 years, and I don't speak English.’ And I'm thinking oh my gosh, how did you survive? Right?” Cruz says. “They have developed these survival skills and I admire them so much. They're really hard working and they are all about their children.”

Veteran’s collection of military uniforms strikes chords of remembrance

Bob Snow’s collection of military uniforms and memorabilia started as a hobby when he was 12.

“I was interested in history. And around that time, I joined the Civil Air Patrol cadet program,” Snow says. Plus, “My father was a Korean War veteran. My uncle was World War II and my grandfather was World War I.”

“I collected off and on through my time in the Navy,” says Snow, who was a helmsman on the John F Kennedy aircraft carrier. Snow, who has a history degree from Northern Kentucky University, joined the reserves and, of course, continued collecting.

Bob SnowHis first uniform display was on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 1991. His collection includes citations of a Northern Kentuckian killed there on the USS Arizona.

People like seeing the military artifacts at libraries, and at local schools and churches. Besides the uniforms, Snow has profiles of the veterans who donated them. His oldest uniform, one he obtained on eBay, is from the Spanish-American War.

His history exhibits make people think of their own families. Then, “they tell stories, and they tell me about their family,” Snow says. “So, I guess I just think it's nostalgia and remembering.”

“In general, I provide uniforms, but I have documents and insignia and combat gear, things that you wouldn't normally see unless you were at a museum. A lot of people will take the time to sit down and read about some of the soldiers and sailors that are highlighted,” the Independence resident says.

The biggest impact his collection provides is perspective. “It helps to highlight the service and sacrifice of our veterans passing … I can't tell the whole story of the military, but I can tell snippets of history that normally they don't get, because schools don't teach it much anymore.”

Librarian: “I see things that need to be done and take them on."

Chantelle Phillips, assistant director of Campbell County Library, has a knack for identifying programs that will serve the community.

A Relatives Raising Relatives group brought grandparents and others out of their isolation. A Census report lists Kentucky as the fifth highest state having population age 30 and over raising grandchildren.

Chantelle PhillipsThe support group was “a response to basically the opioid epidemic because there's so many aunts and uncles and grandparents who are raising kids because their parents have just not been able to do so because of their addictions,” Phillips says.

Though interrupted by the pandemic, the support group allowed a lot of intimate conversations and helped connect people with resources they might not have been aware of, Phillips says.

“You have grandparents who aren't used to doing homework,” she says, and grandparents raising kids despite their own health issues to deal with. “They just don’t have the kind of support they need. And there are groups out there who provide that help.”

Campbell County Library director JC Morgan credits Phillips with projects that have an impact on the community.

“She did a special series of programs for the hearing-impaired, even purchasing a movie that had no sound. All dialogue in the movie was through sign language,” Morgan says.

She offered story times on Zoom during the COVID closures. And it was important to Phillips to continue the free AARP Tax-Aide program at the Newport branch library, even in a limited form, during the pandemic.

“I kind of just see things that need to be done and kind of take them on. That's kind of the way I view things,” Phillips says.
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Read more articles by Nancy Daly.

Nancy Daly is a veteran Kentucky and Cincinnati journalist. An "Army brat" who found a home in Kentucky, she is a University of Kentucky graduate. Her hobbies include photography, rewatching "Better Call Saul" and "Succession," and playing the "Alphabet Game" on Zoom with six siblings across the globe.