When Donyel Barber graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1996, she had the chance to pursue bigger jobs with higher salaries in big cities.
Instead, the 1992 graduate of Ashbrook High School decided to return home to Gastonia, the home of the community where her parents taught her the value of servant leadership, the home of making a positive impact among people she knew best.
This week, the Gaston Business Association will recognize these efforts by presenting him with the 2021 Citizenship and Service Award at its annual meeting and celebration.
The award, sponsored by Duke Energy, is given annually to “an individual who uses their time, talent, and compassion to positively impact the lives of others in their community and/or workplace.”
“It’s always especially special to be honored at home,” Barber said after receiving the award. “State and even national awards are great, but to be honored here at home is especially satisfying.”
The most visible aspect of this positive influence can certainly be seen in Barber’s service to the Gastonia City Council, to which she was elected in November 2019.
But Barber was also honored for her work in the community before winning elected office, having received the United Way of Gaston County’s Dr. Edward D. Sadler Jr. Award, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity of Gaston Clergy. and Concerned Citizens Coalition, and President Barack Obama’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
But back to her decision to return home after graduating from college.
“I came back because I wanted to make a positive difference in this community,” she recalls. “And I also came back because of family. My dad had died when I was in middle school and I really wanted to be close to my mom.”
“She passed away about a year and a half after I returned home,” Barber added. “So I’m really glad I spent that time with her.”
Barber first worked at the Gaston County Department of Social Services, where she was a staff member of Child Protective Services, conducting investigations into child abuse and neglect.
From 2004 to 2016, she served as Executive Director of Family Promise of Gaston County, a program dedicated to helping families in crisis and experiencing homelessness regain their independence and self-reliance.
Since March 2016, Barber has been the Community Centered Health Coordinator for Gaston Family Health Services.
“Over the years, I’ve served as both a link and a resource,” Barber said of his professional life. “Sometimes I was able to directly provide help. At other times I was the link between the person in need and the resource they needed.”
His guiding philosophy throughout these years: “Mind God’s business, and He will mind your business.”
Both in his profession and in his role as a member of the city council, Barber stressed that it is important not only to examine the symptoms of a problem, but also “the root of the problem”.
“We need to dig deeper,” she said. “We need to look at why things are happening and what we can do at fundamental levels to bring about change and ensure fairness for all of our residents.”
When asked if she sees herself as a role model, especially for young women and young women of color, Barber replied, “Yes. I do. I have a very methodical way of approaching issues. I am very strategic in my appearance I think young women can learn from this.
As for thanking the Gaston Business Association, Barber said, “I really appreciate them looking at me for who I am. I just want to thank them and thank Duke Energy for honoring me in this way.”
Bill Poteat can be reached at 704-869-1855 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Gaston Gazette: Ashbrook High School alum receives citizenship and service award