Blake Wood
Publish Date

The University of Illinois Springfield, Junior League of Springfield and the United Way of Central Illinois honored more than 40 Sangamon County volunteers, businesses and organizations during the 16th annual Good as Gold Ceremony on April 22 in the UIS Student Union. 

The Good as Gold Ceremony was started in 2008 to honor people, businesses and organizations who freely give their time and talents to make Sangamon County a better place to live.

Distinguished Volunteer Award

Donna Brown of Springfield was honored with the 2024 Distinguished Volunteer Award. Brown founded iMagicNation in August 2013, a nonprofit geared toward improving children’s reading skills. She’s also the creator of numerous reading programs used in Springfield Public Schools District 186 and summer book clubs implemented in conjunction with the Springfield Urban League and Camp Compass. 

In 2023, she enrolled in a training program at Children’s Dyslexia Center of Springfield, where she volunteers weekly, and works with students as part of the practicum for the training program.

Brown takes her volunteering role seriously. Presently she tutors three students and never misses a session. “I believe by being present, I convey to my students that they are important and that what we are doing is important,” she said. Additionally, Brown trains other volunteers on how to work with students with low reading skills. “I am only one person, but if I train 10 people on how to do the work I do, we can reach so many more children who need help,” Brown said. “I have become aware that I have two groups I work with: young people and adults. I have to be able to communicate effectively with both. It is very rewarding to see the volunteers gain competency and watch their students grow.”

Volunteering allows Brown to invest in the youth of the community. She is able to share lessons learned through formal education, life experiences and her career. “Through volunteering, I am depositing into young people things it has taken me a lifetime to know and understand,” she said. “Youth benefit from this information as they continue their education and begin their careers.

The 2024 Distinguished Volunteer finalists include Cheryl Lipe and Andy Smith.

Star Student Award

University of Illinois Springfield communication major Brandon Damm of Springfield was honored with the Star Student Award. For him, volunteering means doing something outside of oneself and thinking of others around you. 

“It’s not for profit or promotion, but to help in an area where there is a need,” he said. The most important aspect of volunteering for Damm is perspective. “It can really reframe your worldview. It’s easy to be caught up in our own little worlds. We all have our own problems and things to deal with daily, and volunteering reminds us that we’re not alone – there are others who need what you can offer. It feels good to help out. It’s productive and rewarding.”

According to Damm, volunteering can be great for a person’s mental health. Currently, Damm is the volunteer director for Rock and Run for Mental Health. This year’s event is scheduled for Sept. 8 at Rochester Community Park. The event features a 5K, one-mile run or walk, live music, yoga, art and a wellness vendor fair. “This event raises funds for mental health and suicide prevention organizations,” he said.

Damm is also a part of the Springfield Road Runners Club and in the past has been a member of the Springfield Jaycees, The Avenue: North Grand Improvement Organization, MacArthur Boulevard Business Association and the Springfield Independent Coalition for Our Neighborhoods. Along with being a student at UIS, Damm works full-time as a human resources representative at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Grace Henry with the UIS Performing Arts Center Ticket Office was also nominated for this award. 

Star Staff Award

Dre Duvendack, UIS Gender and Sexuality Student Services program coordinator and adjunct communication instructor, was honored with the Star Staff Award. She calls volunteering “an extremely useful tool in community building, empowerment and engagement.”

“To me, a core part of volunteering is listening to and acting upon the expressed needs or requests of our community members facing systematic injustices, while seeking out ways to sustainably remove barriers and dismantle systems of oppression,” she said. “The most important aspect of volunteering for me is social justice, which includes identity empowerment, education, monetary commitments and creating space.”

Within the Springfield community, Duvendack stays engaged as much as she can. She’s been an active member of the PFLAG Springfield, an organization dedicated to supporting, educating and advocating for LGBTQ+ people, since 2020. She was a board member in 2021 and served as president in 2022 and 2023.

“I have been a moderator in the LGBTQ+ Women of Springfield Facebook community group since 2021, the social media co-chair for Springfield PrideFest since 2022 and have done some volunteer work with the Springfield Immigrant Advocacy Network over the years,” she said.

Duvendack has collaborated with local faith communities to provide education and has worked with the United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming movement to connect LGBTQ+ students with additional means of support. 

“I also have served as a yOUTh Group Facilitator at the Phoenix Center since 2022,” she said. “In addition to my campus work duties, I am on the leadership team for the UIS Coalition Builders, an affiliate chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute.”

Youth Volunteer Award

Natasia Brown, a junior at Springfield’s Southeast High School, was honored with the Youth Volunteer Award. She has a passion for helping people. It doesn’t matter who needs help, she’s there to aid in any situation. “I love to see the joy on their faces,” she said. “I just love helping people. That has been my experience in volunteering.”

One organization Brown is passionate about is the Max-OUT Foundation. “My best friend’s mom works with Marke Freeman, who is the founder and president of the foundation. She’s an amazing woman,” Brown said. She has been involved in gift bag and back-to-school giveaways. During the pandemic, she assisted with a computer and internet giveaway.

Brown volunteers on multiple committees through District 186 including Family and Community Engagement (known as F.A.C.E.) which is comprised of district personnel, parents and community members. “I am the only student currently participating,” she said. “We work to ensure that the school district meets the goal of preparing every student to be career or college-ready by graduation. I have been part of this group since its inception last school year.”

Brown’s involvement at Southeast High School includes improvements to the course catalog, the Superintendent Round Table and Unity Day. “We worked with the director of secondary education and his team to merge our course catalog to an online version that provides families information on courses and specialized programs offered at our high schools,” said Brown.

“The Superintendent Round Table is comprised of students who meet with the superintendent to go over questions and concerns about our schools. We are also responsible for the Unity Day event in which students from all local high schools are invited to get together and learn and grow as one in the community.”

Lucy Aldrich with Compass for Kids was also nominated for this award.

Heart of Gold Community Awards

Twenty-six volunteers were also honored with the Heart of Gold Award. Recipients included: Larry Aldag, Kami Austin, Alice Beck, Mario Borders, Beth Brosi, Patricia Carley, Mary Crain, Tricia Crouch, Astrid Goodin, David Halpin, Lois Jirgal, Nathania Laier, Barbara Louden, Brice Magowan, Mary McLean Ann, Donna Nichols, Tracey O’Connor, Cheryl Pence, Lauren Rebeck, Debra Ann Sarsany, Barb Schmidt, Ed Sims, Diana Szczepanski, Leslie Termine, Michael Thomas and Frances Tomashavich.

Organization of the Year Award

The winner of the 2024 Organization of the Year Award is the Springfield Immigrant Advocacy Network (SIAN), a grassroots volunteer organization serving immigrants and refugees, children and families who have come to Springfield. Its mission is to protect the rights and promote the well-being and inclusion of Springfield’s immigrant and refugee communities through advocacy, education and direct assistance.

Veronica Espina, founder of SIAN, has served as board president and co-chair since 2016. “I am one of many volunteers who spend every other weekend shopping, packing and delivering healthy food,” she said. “I serve as spokesperson to the press and represent SIAN in community presentations. I also join with our other passionate volunteers in community education and advocacy.” SIAN provides fresh food every other week to almost 60 families facing food insecurity. Dozens of families have received assistance that was otherwise nonexistent or inaccessible to them.

Espina also serves on the Illinois Council on Women and Girls under Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton. She is on the board of the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism and is a member of the Springfield Chapter of the American Association of University Women.

“Volunteering is the reason SIAN is able to exist. It binds us with each other and with our community,” Espina said. “Volunteering is one of the most loving and transparent ways to serve people and communities, particularly those who are historically excluded, impoverished, marginalized or struggling.”

Other nominees for this award included Compass for Kids, the American Business Club of Springfield and First Christian Church. 

Business Honor Roll

A total of 11 Sangamon County businesses were named to the Business Honor Roll. The honor roll recognizes businesses that have made giving back to our community a priority. Awards were divided into three categories: businesses with 1-10 employees, 51-150 employees and more than 150 employees. One business in each category received the honor of Golden Distinction.

Businesses honored with 1-10 employees include AlignLife of Springfield, Bloom Hospitality and Catering, Formea Insurance Group, Illinois Local, Rose Aesthetics and Wellness Clinic and The Wakery. The Golden Distinction was awarded to Illinois Local, an organization that connects and supports independent businesses and entrepreneurs. Members network and build friendships, and many successful collaborations have been born out of the organization.

In the 50-150 employee category, KEB was honored with the Golden Distinction award. KEB supports a diverse array of local organizations such as the United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity, the Pregnancy Care Center and numerous others. KEB said it is “guided by a deep-rooted commitment to community engagement and the passions of our employees.”

Bank of Springfield (BOS) received the Golden Distinction award in the category of businesses with more than 150 employees. Other businesses honored include Ameren Illinois, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Illinois and Concordia Village. In 2023, BOS supported more than 200 different organizations through a combination of employee volunteer participation, sponsorships and charitable contributions. These organizations included Habitat for Humanity, United Way, The Motherland Gardens Community Project, Special Olympics, Animal Protective League and the King’s Daughters Organization.