On the evening of Nov. 11, United In Excellence hosted its second annual banquet to recognize its 2017 scholarship recipients.
The group, founded by Joliet Central High School graduates Cristi Washington-Gaither and Eric Deshaun Dorris, aims to compliment the work of Brothers of Excellence and Sisters of Excellence, the two student organizations they founded more than a decade ago.
“We kind of pulled it together, so we could have the brothers and the sisters come together, so that we could have an actual after-school program, here, at Joliet Central,” Washington-Gaither said. “We had some Joliet Central students and some [Joliet] West students that came.”
Around that time, Washington-Gaither was new to the City of Joliet and wanted to find classmates with like-minded interests to do something positive.
“A group of us—five of us—we knew that… one of the things we had in common is knowing people that went to [Historically Black Colleges & Universities] and what the feel was for seeing fraternities and sororities stepping, we had already build kind of a sisterhood between the five of us,” Washington-Gaither said. “We decided what we wanted to do was be able to step and perform for the school, perform for the community service events, parades, whatever we could just find to get into, so that we weren’t doing anything else that everybody else was doing. We just wanted to do something that was a lot better, above and beyond all the negativity that we [had seen] growing up.”
Each group had a set of bylines and structures in place that students had to follow, just like sororities or fraternities.
“Here, it is different in a sense of this is now the grown-up version of UIE because we working to raise funds for scholarships for the kids that are Joliet Central and Joliet West,” Washington-Gaither said.
This year, the program had four presentations of awards, with Vanessa Amor Flores earning the Warren C. & Rita H. Dorris Scholarship, Andre Baez Martinez and Gretchen Volling accepting the Dr. Timmothy D. Bailey Scholarship and Mya McClellen receiving the Fine & Performing Arts Scholarship.
The group awarded more than $3,000 to students in the district last year. This year, United in Excellence aims to collect the same amount, if not more, through donations from families, community members and school board members.
United In Excellence prides itself on maintaining contact with its scholarship recipients.
“We definitely keep in contact with them and make sure… just to see how they’re doing [in] their college life [to see if] there’s anything that they need just to maintain the family structure and that family feel for them, so that it’s not just giving them money and walking away,” Washington-Gaither said. “It’s us making sure that you’re still OK.”
“We have a principal, here, from the district,” he said. “Our scholars send videos and emails to us. So, our goal is to really stay in contact with the district and the schools.”
Approximately 100 people were on hand for the second annual banquet, which included dinner and a silent auction.
Dorris said he appreciates the community’s support shown for United In Excellence.
“Principals, parents, scholars and teachers are coming to our events,” he said.
Washington-Gaither said the group’s importance rings true for many.
“[It’s] really an all-around good time,” she said. “It’s to celebrate a second year of being able to giveback to the kids, to give back to the community, to celebrate unity. Last year, we asked what excellence was for everyone and what their personal definition was for excellence. This year, it’s what does unity mean? It’s amazing just to see the connection between two cities that you’ve got me in Baltimore and you got Eric, here, in Joliet and the work that can be done across the country.”