In this week’s installment of the “Where Are They Now?” series, JOIP alum LaRae Walker (Tuskegee University ‘15) recalls her formation as a civic leader and the importance of bridge building in community outreach.
“I grew up wanting to help people.”
“Being in urban Birmingham and coming from the area I grew up in – seeing the different things that people would get involved in and seeing the opportunity the generation before me missed out on – made me want to be an advocate for them.”
Since her youth, LaRae Walker has had a strong vision for a more equitable society. An early interest in one historic issue led her to Tuskegee University:
“My senior year of high school my AP English teacher showed us a movie about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and we had to write a paper,” she recalls. Through her research, she became captivated by the university, and decided to take a trip to campus. After her visit, she made up her mind to apply, and was accepted. She reflects on the transition between her hometown and Tuskegee:
“Growing up in Birmingham is kind of what you make it,” remembers Walker, a 2009 graduate of Carver High School. “When I was given the opportunity to go to Tuskegee, I was given the opportunity to be exposed to a lot of the things I wasn’t exposed to in Birmingham.”
While Walker did ultimately attend Tuskegee University, her career plans changed shortly before her senior year, when she enrolled in a sociology class taught by Dr. Lonnie Hannon. Dr. Hannon’s class convinced Walker to change majors, and Hannon himself encouraged LaRae to consider interning as a JOIP.
“I thought that instead of working in a hospital I wanted to have a more ‘in the field’ job,” says Walker of her decision to change her major to sociology.
As for participating in JOIP, she attests, “I’m really big on community involvement and making changes in Alabama. To have the opportunity to participate in something like that, where I can do hands on things in my community, allowed me the chance to experience something that made a change.”
Walker continues the legacy of change-making in her current role at Aletheia House, where she serves as a community wellness team leader, providing substance abuse services to students in Macon, Pike, and Bullock counties.
“I get to plan a lot of the things that we do and the curriculum I provide for substance abuse is all evidence-based,” Walker explains enthusiastically. “It’s a chance to interact with the youth and bridge that gap, and in the meantime provide them with a lot of info that prevents them from making wrong choices.”
As for her favorite part of the job, Walker affirms, “Everything is fulfilling.” Aletheia House also provides many services within the Birmingham area that allow Walker to remain active in the community where she was raised. “We do project homeless every year in Birmingham,” she notes. “I believe it’s a great opportunity to be of service to others who you wouldn’t normally be able to reach out to. With us being a substance abuse and prevention agency we are not the first thing on their mind,” she continues. “Through the project we’re allowing them the opportunity to receive free services.”
Still, much of her rewarding work happens in the communities she serves daily. “In Macon, Pike, and Bullock we have summer camp,” Walker explains. “To see the reaction of positive interaction with students who don’t typically have interaction confirmed my purpose.” According to Walker, the JOIP internship helped confirm that purpose too.
“My internship opened my eyes to a different world. Before the experience, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”
“After the internship, I knew I wanted to do something with the community and I wanted to be able to bridge that gap,” Walker recalls. “It taught me a lot about networking and really reaching people and fulfilling that purpose. “ And according to Walker, so much of life comes down to purpose. “I talk about purpose because I think that is so important. It’s the drive that keeps you going.”
Written by Gabrielle Lamplugh, Civic Fellow