May 16, 2012

A thread of philanthropy weaves through the fiber of SMU. Each year more than 2,500 SMU students volunteer with over 70 nonprofit organizations, and as alumni they continue to make a positive difference in their communities and around the globe. Following are the stories of two SMU graduates who are changing lives through their good works.

Carter Higley ’01: LEAD (Letting Everyone Achieve Dreams)

Carter Higley ’01 of Houston, founder of LEAD (Letting Everyone Achieve Dreams), a youth mentoring and leadership program, calls SMU a “game-changer.”

Carter Higley ’01 (center, in white shirt) and some participants in the youth mentoring and leadership program he founded in Houston.

“I had a wonderful experience from an academic perspective, but what was even more fulfilling was the opportunity to give back through community involvement,” he says. “I think I may have started out a bit singularly focused, and my volunteer experiences definitely broadened my perspective.”

As an SMU student, Higley served as a volunteer tutor for struggling Dallas students. Working with the youngsters inspired him to join Teach for America after graduation. Assigned to Compton, a city in southern Los Angeles County, he witnessed the need for strong role models and enrichment opportunities outside the classroom.

“Summers were particularly challenging for students,” he says. “They had a lot of free time on their hands and not much to do that was productive.”

After completing his teaching commitment, Higley forged a successful career in business – he is now a financial adviser with UBS – but his students left a lasting impression.

In spring 2005, he and his wife, Jamil, founded LEAD. The year-round program for inner-city youth instills confidence and strengthens self-esteem through team building and leadership training activities, as well as community service projects and a summer wilderness experience.

What sets LEAD apart from similar programs is a six-year commitment required of both students and mentors. Students must apply and be accepted as sixth-graders – participants are called “LEADers.” They work with the same three mentors until they graduate from high school. Throughout the school year, LEADers must meet academic, service and other standards to remain eligible.

Higley reports that “all 16 students in our first LEAD class have completed high school and are attending college, including a student who was the first from his high school to go to MIT.”

Jennifer Kenning ’01 and Josh Helland ’00: A Good Night Sleep

A scene in the movie “The Blind Side” caught Jennifer Kenning off guard. When the Michael Oher character is shown his new room, he confesses that he’s never before had a bed. That powerful moment moved her.

Josh Helland ’00 and Jennifer Kenning ’01 are shown with mattresses donated to provide beds to those in need.

“I couldn’t imagine not having a bed to sleep in at night,” says Kenning, a wealth management director for Aspiriant in Los Angeles. “It made me realize how much I take for granted.”

While her initial intention was to write a check to a charity that provides beds to the needy, she discovered “there was not a single organization with that sole purpose,” she says.

In fall 2010, Kenning filled that gap by founding A Good Night Sleep (AGNS). The nonprofit organization partners with charitable groups to provide beds and bedding
to the homeless and others in need as they transition into permanent housing. She serves as chair of AGNS, and fellow Mustang Josh Helland ’00 is executive director.

During Homecoming weekend last year, Kenning and Helland organized the first Dallas “bed drop.” Among the local partners was the mattress retailer Sleep Experts, owned by Chris ’91 and Christine Cook ’91. Beds and basic household items were provided for 120 people moving from The Bridge homeless shelter to apartments.

“We plan to do another bed drop in Dallas and are very interested in working with SMU student groups,” says Kenning.

To date, A Good Night Sleep has provided 504 beds and bedding in Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Managua, Nicaragua, with a commitment to distribute another 123 beds in 2012.