One Berea staffer’s vision sparked Berea’s campus toward
awareness, service and support
My first year here, I went to Ghana; it all starts with Ghana,” said Dr. Valeria Watkins, Berea’s student support advisor for the Black Music Ensemble (BME).
Watkins moved to Berea from Malibu, Calif., where she had worked in addiction medicine for years. Knowing only her sister in the area, she knew if she was going to make it in this small Appalachian town she had to get involved.
“I did what I did out there, but now I’m here, and I have to get involved with the community and the students,” Watkins said, deciding at the outset that service was her ticket to navigating her new locale.
Her first summer after starting at Berea College, Watkins joined the Berea International Study and Travel (BIST) program trip to Ghana. The group was led by Dr. Linda Strong-Leek, vice president for Diversity and Inclusion, and Dr. Kathy Bullock, director of BME. They studied African music and literature during the month-long trip. They traveled to various cultural centers and rural areas in Ghana, including the isolated village of Komfueku. Komfueku villagers have no running water, walk three to five miles in one direction to any amenities and make all their bricks by hand, Watkins said.
This village and its pastor, Kwame Nkrumah, asked a simple question, ‘What are your intentions here?’ That captured Watkins’ attention. Nkrumah spoke of the St. John Church and Community Center the village was working to expand when they ran out of money to complete the roof. When the rains came, the beams rusted and their work on the building halted. The pastor asked the gathered Berea adults for help funding the repair and completion of the church’s roof.
“I thought he said $2,500 was what he needed,” Watkins recalled. “They’d been working hard and just needed help. I thought, ‘I can help with $2,500’ and said, ‘I’ll help you raise it.’”
Nkrumah was delighted and Watkins’ fellow Bereans were bewildered. Days later on the plane home, Keith Bullock, coordinator for the Black Male Leadership Initiative, asked Watkins how she planned on raising $25,000.
“I thought he was being silly or just messing with me,” Watkins recalled. “So I asked Dr. Strong-Leek and she agreed that the amount was $25,000 and said she was surprised I had agreed to that.
“So I decided I wasn’t going to worry,” Watkins continued. “I knew I’d figure something out, and it would all work out the way it was supposed to.”
With such a large promise hanging over her head, Watkins shared her pictures and Ghana experience with her friends with an equal mixture of excitement and trepidation. One group of not just friends, but five fellow artists known as the Feminist Artists of Kentucky, was especially inspired and impressed by the people and images Watkins shared from her Ghana experience. Watkins had met this group of like-minded female artists shortly after moving to Berea at the Ahava Center for Spiritual Living in Lexington, Ky. These women gather to work on individual artistic mediums from quilting to painting to working with polymer clay.
Inspired by Watkins’ Ghana images, the group offered to help her keep her promise and raise money to support the Ghanaian church. Using their individual artistic mediums, each woman took Watkins’ Ghana photographs and made an image in their own style. Other local artists joined in, and they decided to have an art show and sale during Berea College’s homecoming, in conjunction with the BME concert at Union Church. Named ‘Images of Ghana,’ the beautifully unique art exhibit raised $11,000.
“After we sent that money to Ghana, we decided we would continue and try to raise the entire $25,000,” Watkins said.
From there, the group expanded the idea of Images of Ghana by crafting Ghanaian fabric aprons paired with American fabric. Each had unique features and images of Ghana on the front. Though the aprons proved to be an exceptional amount of work, they were particularly successful and sold out.
“We each put on hold what we would normally have done individually to work together as a team,” Watkins said about each of the Feminist Artists of Kentucky artists. “They were beautiful.”
Soon, through incredible support from the Berea College and local communities, Watkins met her $25,000 goal—but she didn’t stop there. Pastor Nkrumah came to Berea to meet and visit with the artists.
“He spent time with us and just made that connection, and everyone felt so touched by his interest and about what we were trying to do, that the group wanted to continue to have ongoing Images of Ghana projects,” Watkins said.
In the years following, Watkins and the Feminist Artists of Kentucky’s artistic endeavors have raised funds to spay and neuter animals, support horse therapy for kids diagnosed on the autism spectrum and provide school uniform repairs for children in the Ghanaian village. The uniforms many of the students wear to school every day were tattered, with broken zippers and ripped seams held together by safety pins, Watkins recalled. The government is supposed to provide new uniforms each year, but there is not enough money to do so. By raising funds to repair or replace the uniforms, the kids have decent attire to wear, and there is work for the local tailors who complete the repairs or sew new handmade uniforms.
This past year, Watkins’ group also took on the challenge of raising funds to support Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. island territory—causing severe flooding and blackouts in September 2017—many small communities remained saturated and without power in to 2018. Then in March, a powerful nor’easter pummeled the east coast, sending intense waves toward Puerto Rico, once again flooding parts of the island. Watkins helped raise $1,500 to provide canned meat and paper products to Puerto Rico.
“We had to know the problem, what they needed, how to get the resources there and who would be
in charge of disseminating the items once they arrived,” Watkins said of the project. “We went through two churches who are doing phenomenal work to provide food and other items for the people to take home. Some of those people may walk a half a day or longer to get food and take it back. There are still a lot of people living in tents, and everything is still wet, and the rainy season is getting ready to start.”
Keeping it local
In addition to the Images of Ghana campaigns, Watkins became the driving force behind another project to help support a Lexington school. She heard about a young girl named Kerrigan at her church who was collecting bottle caps to be used to create playground equipment for her school.
“She would bring in bottle caps in a little baggy,” Watkins recalled.
At that rate, Watkins knew it would take a lifetime to collect what they needed for their playground, and so she decided to get involved. With another Berea group leaving for Ghana again, she asked them to save the caps from all the water bottles they drank while on the trip. When they returned, the group brought back bags and bags full of caps, surprising Watkins that they could even get them on the plane back to the U.S.
That success launched a campus-wide challenge to collect bottle caps.
Caps of all shapes, sizes and colors were collected by dorms, departments across campus and students. Even students’ parents were collecting and sending caps to campus to support the effort, Watkins said.
“It was one of those projects that got everyone involved,” Watkins said. “We were saving them, people were always telling me they had a bunch. Anywhere I went, people were saying, ‘Save your caps for Dr. Valeria.’ It was just a wonderful project to have so many involved.”
At the end, not only was Kerrigan able to get the playground equipment for her school, Watkins’ Ahava Church was able to install new benches and playground equipment for children at the church as well. And last fall, Kerrigan’s mom, Jennifer Lance ’20, became a non-traditional, first-year student at Berea College—joining the community that so unselfishly supported her young daughter’s cause.
Watkins’ spirit of service and compassion for the vulnerable continues to propel her to seek out ways to serve those in her local community and across the country. Whether it’s donating paintings for No Child Cold/No Child Hungry in Berea to support the family resource centers’ efforts in local schools, or sewing journals for the latest group heading to Ghana, Watkins said she and her artist group want to show how they can use their art in service to those in need and to those who oftentimes are not visible.
“I had never participated in a big project,” Watkins said. “I had always donated to causes, but to take on a really big project like raising $25,000 made me want to participate in more projects, giving and service. I see value in service being an integral part of who I am and trying to instill that in the students (at Berea.) I’m always asking, ‘What can we do to give back? How can you look at a problem differently?
“You have a duty to give back,” she continued. “You have to think about how you can do that and engage more people to make a difference because it starts with each person. That’s what I do.”