2024 Sullivan Award winners lead with compassion, service to others

This story was originally published by Hilary Brown, Hayden Gooding, and Lindsey Piercy in UK Now.

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 18, 2024) — Two University of Kentucky students and one local citizen have received UK’s highest honor for humanitarian efforts — the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award.

Established by the New York Southern Society in 1925 and named for its first president, Algernon Sydney Sullivan, the award recognizes those “who exhibit Sullivan’s ideals of heart, mind and conduct as evince a spirit of love for and helpfulness to other men and women.” After the society closed, the award has lived on through the Sullivan Foundation and is given at several universities in the South.

At UK, the Sullivan Award is bestowed each year on two graduating seniors and one citizen who has a connection to the university. This year’s Sullivan award student winners are Emmanuel Dhemby Moussabou and Kotomi Yokokura. Alexandra “Alex” Simpson, who passed away in 2022, is the citizen award recipient.

Kotomi Yokokura

Kotomi Yokokura, of Northern Kentucky, will graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Social Work (CoSW).

While Yokokura, also a Lewis Honors College student, has academically excelled throughout her time at UK, her true passion is advocacy.

During her freshman year, Yokokura founded the “Take a Tampon” initiative — hosting a donation drive to ensure ample supply of hygiene products across campus. After much research, she realized how prevalent period poverty is and how detrimental it can be to not only one’s mental and physical health, but their academic success.

Yokokura also sought collaborative partnerships with other institutions, including the University of Louisville, to address this issue on higher education campuses, in low-income middle and high schools, and at homeless shelters across the state. Additionally, she met with State Sen. Harper Angel, the sponsor of a bill providing menstrual products in schools and created research documents to contribute to the cause.

Yokokura’s work in the community also includes two other important societal issues.

Yokokura has assisted with research on the migration of those experiencing homelessness in relation to community services available with Andrew Sullivan, Ph.D., (a graduate of the UK Martin School of Public Policy and Administration). She also completed a study on the perceptions and utilization of social support among men experiencing homelessness with Natalie Pope, Ph.D. (CoSW).

Yokokura has a published peer-reviewed journal article on homelessness in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Cityscape.”

Additionally, she contributed to a survey research project through the UK Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition in the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment that explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted college students’ psychosocial health, formal and informal support utilization, employment, food insecurity, and social behaviors, which was published by the Georgia Journal of College Student Affairs. She is also part of the Chellgren Student Fellowship program at UK.

Despite her many community service endeavors, when asked, Yokokura said she’s most proud of her awareness and prevention work surrounding sexual assault. Her efforts consisted of researching the prevalence of these experiences and testifying about her own experience in support of HB 288.

“No matter who you are or what you are studying, your voice and efforts can be impactful. The people at the University of Kentucky have been instrumental in both my academic and advocacy efforts — going out of their way to help a student they may not have known,” she said. “The faculty I have had the pleasure of working with have gone out of their way to empower my pursuits in the field of research, nonprofit work and advocacy. Without these individuals, I would not be where I am today.”

Emmanuel Dhemby Moussabou

Emmanuel Dhemby Moussabou will graduate from the Clinical Leadership and Management program in the College of Health Sciences this May.

Dhemby Moussabou was born in Tchibanga, Gabon, a small town on the west coast of Africa. From a young age, his goal in life has been to help others. Even if it is in a small way, Dhemby Moussabou has worked to provide relief when possible and encourage anyone who may be disheartened.

At UK, Dhemby Moussabou is recognized for his experiences in community involvement, campus engagement, academic success and professionalism. He demonstrates intuitive leadership skills driven by his passion for faith and serving others.

“Much of this stems from an ardent desire to better the lives of those I encounter, which primarily includes my community and the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Dhemby Moussabou said.

In addition to his academic success, Dhemby Moussabou serves as a Presidential Student Ambassador and College of Health Sciences Student Ambassador. Upon graduation, he will serve as a UK Alumni Ambassador. He is also actively involved in YWCA Black Achievers program and has provided support and leadership for the BCTC A Few Good Men Initiative.

Dhemby Moussabou is proactive and always finds ways to help his peers, patients, families and communities. He is constantly demonstrating excellence of character and humanitarian service. He has overseen soccer camps for children, helped young students with reading and served members at his church through worship and Sunday school.

As part of his undergraduate studies in the College of Health Sciences, Dhemby Moussabou is completing his advanced professional practicum experience working with CHI St. Joseph Health’s leadership team. He spends his time learning and working on advocacy and finance projects while demonstrating high levels of leadership. He has received outstanding assessments of his skills, engagement and commitment to quality health care.

“It makes me so happy to know that the people around me notice the work I do to try to help others,” Dhemby Moussabou said. “I feel extremely honored to have even been considered for this award.”

Alexandra Simpson

Alexandra “Alex” Simpson of Lexington is remembered as a bright, compassionate young woman who used every moment of her short life to advocate for children with cancer.

Growing up immersed in the arts, Simpson understood the importance of creative expression and the healing capabilities of art, especially for children. She was a talented singer, actor and dancer; she found her home on the stage, appearing in 22 stage productions. Throughout her recurring battle with a rare form of Ewing’s sarcoma, Simpson raised funds for her fellow patients, supporting art and music therapy at Kentucky Children’s Hosptial (KCH). According to her mother, Simpson found the arts healing throughout her cancer journey. She knew if she could get patients and families out of their rooms for painting, singing, knitting and watching others perform, it would lift their spirits.

She became an advocate for other children in the hospital to experience a life enriched by the arts, leading to the establishment of the Simpson Family Theater. The theater is a space for children at KCH to participate in art projects, theater productions, storytelling, holiday parties, music and more. This opportunity for creative expression offers a much-needed reprieve for patients. Wanting to make sure all patients had the chance to find healing through art, Simpson also founded her own music therapy fund to ensure that KCH patients had the option to receive music therapy during their inpatient stays.

Simpson graduated from Dartmouth cum laude in 2022 during her third battle with cancer. She majored in French and psychology and had plans to attend law school. She found her calling in supporting children with cancer, and intended to use her law degree to be an advocate for pediatric patients and health care providers.

Simpson’s cancer was rare, and she believed researching her cancer would save lives. She gave her tumor to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute for research and established the Alexandra Simpson Pediatric Oncology Research Fund to help educate doctors and researchers and to give children like herself a chance against rare forms of cancer. She encouraged genetic mapping of her tumors to help other sarcoma patients. She also worked as a research assistant in the lab of her oncologist, John D’Orazio, M.D.

Simpson passed away at age 22, having faced cancer three times with grace and courage. Her generous spirit lives on, touching the lives of not just KCH patients, but children at Central Christian Church, Lexington Theater Company, The Lexington School, Lexington Children’s Theater, Dartmouth University’s French program and Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates through endowed funds established in her memory.

Drawing inspiration from A.A. Milne’s Eeyore who said “weeds are flowers too,” Simpson’s mother, Melanie, stated in a reflective statement that her daughter spent her short life turning the weed of cancer into a bouquet of beautiful and stunning “flowers” for many people and organizations.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It’s all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.

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For 85 years, the University of Kentucky College of Social Work (CoSW) has been a leader in social work education. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world. Like the University, CoSW is an organization that cultivates a diverse academic community characterized by interpersonal fairness and social justice. We are fiercely committed to developing outstanding social work professionals — leaders who will serve individuals, families, and communities through innovative and effective practices that are guided by cultural competency, systematic ethical analysis, and a keen and pragmatic understanding of the human condition.