GREENSBORO, N.C. – Bennett College President Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins was 9 when an adult cousin told her she was going to be somebody one day – words she has long remembered.
During a pizza party at Erwin Montessori at Alamance Elementary School on Friday, Dawkins told 18 first graders they can be whatever they want. Bennett College sponsored the party to thank the students for the $115 in quarters they donated to the #StandWithBennett Campaign, which began on Dec. 11, 2018, lasted for 55 days and raised about $9.5 million.
“We want to thank you for the money you gave to us,” Dawkins told the children as they sat quietly on their classroom floor. “And we want you to believe in yourselves. I grew up in the projects, in public housing in Asheville. One day when I was in the fourth grade, one of my adult cousins said to me, ‘you’re gonna be somebody someday.’ That set a vision in my head.”
After Dawkins’ remarks, Miss Bennett College spoke.
“I bring you greetings from the land of black girl magic,” said Brooke Ashley Kane, a 2019 political science graduate from Upper Marlboro, Maryland. “You helped save my school, and you will never understand how much that means.”
The event began with a Moving up Ceremony for the students, who are taught by “Can Do Teacher” Karen Wallace and her assistant, Diana Liinangi. Also in attendance were Erwin Principal Dr. Deborah Parker and School Support Officer Christopher Tolliver.
“President Dawkins, I’m telling you these are not just any little kids,” Wallace said of her students who she affectionately calls Can Do Kids. “These are extraordinary kids.”
It was standing-room-only in Wallace’s classroom, as parents, siblings and Bennett officials gathered for the Moving up Ceremony/pizza party. After being prompted by Dawkins, the children said their names one-by-one and proudly proclaimed what they aspire to be when they grow up. The only thing brighter than their smiles were the smiles worn by their parents.
In addition to certificates they received for successfully passing, or moving up, to the second grade, the children were given StandWithBennett T-shirts. The pizza they ate came from Papa John’s, which established a relationship with Bennett after The Papa John’s Foundation donated $500,000 to the #StandWithBennett Campaign. Kane was also a hit on Friday, as several of the female students asked to hold her crown or to take pictures with her.
The importance of Friday’s event cannot be overstated. Parents thanked Wallace and Liinangi profusely for the way they push their children and go the extra mile to ensure they succeed. Many parents grew emotional as they spoke, prompting tears from Wallace, Liinangi and others in the audience. Parker said Erwin Montessori is proof positive that it takes a village to raise a child.
“Ms. Wallace and Ms. Liinangi are a great team,” she said. “We are very thankful that we have a great staff at Erwin Montessori.”
Dawkins said in an interview after the pizza party that Bennett College is grateful to the students for their benevolence. The students wanted to donate money to Bennett in large part because of the donations they were given after a tornado ripped through east Greensboro in April 2018, significantly damaging their school and forcing them to relocate to Alamance Elementary School on Williams Dairy Road.
Dawkins also proudly talked about the student whose lavender T-shirt proclaimed she is a future Bennett Belle, and she delighted in the fact that the mothers of some of Wallace’s students are Bennett graduates.
About Bennett College: Founded in 1873 as a coeducational institution, Bennett College became women’s only in 1926. Bennett has a rich history of producing outstanding women leaders, including the first woman or African American to head the U.S. Peace Corps, the first African American mayor of the city of Greensboro, the first African American female district attorney in North Carolina and the first African American woman to serve as assistant attorney general in the state of Massachusetts – just to name a few. At Bennett, where students are taught how to become analytical thinkers, strong leaders and effective communicators, the top five majors are Journalism and Media Studies, Biology, Social Work, Psychology and Business Administration.