Teacher, community leader, organization honored for work in diversity

Thursday, January 17, 2008 | 12:24 p.m. CST; updated 4:08 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Jonette Ford, right, receives a Columbia Values Diversity Award from Mayor Darwin Hindman on Thursday during the annual Columbia Values Diversity Celebration. Ford is a fifth-grade teacher at West Boulevard Elementary School. She and Vellore Gopalaratnam each received the individual awards. The Office of Creative Ministries with the Missouri United Methodist Church received the organizational award.

COLUMBIA — Teacher Jonette Ford, Indian community leader Vellore Gopalaratnam and the Office of Creative Ministries received Columbia Values Diversity Awards on Thursday morning before a sold-out crowd of more than 1,100 at the 15th annual Columbia Values Diversity Celebration.

Mayor Darwin Hindman presented the awards to people he said exemplify the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by promoting individual dignity, racial equality, peace making and nonviolence over an extended time. Two individual awards were given this year, rather than the traditional one award, from the field of 15 nominees.

Award Recipients

Jonette Ford Jonette Ford is a teacher and civil rights mentor for fifth-graders at West Boulevard Elementary School. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from MU and actively promotes issues of social justice, tolerance and civil rights in her classroom. One recent classroom project created a Civil Rights Museum in the halls of the school depicting key moments in black history. Vellore “Gopal” Gopalaratnam Vellore Gopalaratnam is an MU professor of civil engineering and serves as the president of the executive board of the newly established Hindu Temple and Community Center of Mid-Missouri. Inspired by the teaching of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi, Gopalaratnam has been actively involved with service projects for the Columbia Public Schools, Central Missouri Food Bank, the City of Columbia and the Mid-Missouri interfaith community. Office of Creative Ministries The Office of Creative Ministries was transformed in 1965 under director Mel West to expand its mission to “appropriate response to identifiable human need.” In an effort to reach out to those in need, it promotes programs such as Heifer International, which provides training and farm animals to families to improve their livelihoods. It is also involved with disaster relief of floods, tornados and Gulf Coast hurricanes.

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Jonette Ford, a fifth-grade teacher at West Boulevard Elementary, won for her work in helping students “live democracy, not just define it,” Hindman said. Her students have worked on projects such as creating a civil rights museum at their school and writing personal histories by interviewing family members and connecting their lives to historical events. Ford said they didn’t have the option to visit the actual Civil Rights Museum so they did their own research with the help of a college class to build their own replica right there in the hallways of West Boulevard Elementary. This year, they are researching the women’s rights movement for a new project.

“We try to find the missing voices in U.S. history and make them heard,” Ford said.

Gopalaratnam, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MU, is a leader in the local Indian community, Hindman said, referring to him by his nickname “Dr. Gopal.”

Gopalaratnam is president of the 2008 executive board at Shanthi Mandir Hindu Temple and Community Center of Mid-Missouri and has also worked with other local organizations, including Columbia Public Schools, the Central Missouri Food Bank and MU student groups.

He said it was humbling to receive the award because there are so many people in the community working to build a better Columbia. Recently, Gopalaratnam has focused on the interfaith community while promoting tolerance in his teaching efforts.

“If each of us is aware of other’s points of view, it promotes tolerance,” he said. “And Columbia is doing very well on that front.”

The Office of Creative Ministries, which won the organizational award, has illustrated “deliberate inclusiveness” both on its board and in the causes it supports, as diverse as caring for the Earth to prison ministry, racial equality and disaster response.

Former director Rev. Mel West said this award should bring more community-wide recognition and support for the office. “Since 1965, that office has been working on behalf of the poverty stricken population in Missouri and internationally,” West said. “And they have done it well and consistently.”

Hindman said the office strives to offer the “appropriate response” to human need and does so through programs such as Heifer International; PATCH, a program for children with parents in prison; Habitat for Humanity; and Missouri United Methodist Disaster Response. West said the organization is very action-orientated and has teams organized to be on the spot of a disaster almost overnight.

Although the awards were a highlight of the diversity breakfast, held at the Holiday Inn Expo Center, the entertainment was impressive.

The artistic program, called “My Country Awake,” incorporated a variety of cultural traditions into several artistic mediums.

The Smithton Middle School MAC Scholars recited “Gitanjali 35,” a prayer offering of song written by Rabindranth Tagore. The Bunraku Bay Puppets troupe performed the Sanbaso, a traditional Japanese dance of celebration. Martin Holman, director of the troupe and coordinator of Japanese Studies at MU, said the dance is meant to bestow good fortune and blessings on the audience.

The Hickman High School Slam Poets performed four original poems. Atlante Guajardo recited “My America” and “Imagine Life,” Nick Rodriguez recited “Victims of Society” and Sebastian Miller recited “The Transparency of Life.”

The program concluded with a dance by the Missouri Contemporary Ballet. Deborah and Tim Baldwin directed the program.

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