When he began work at age 9 as a dishwasher at the Virginian restaurant on the Corner, Melvin Walker said Saturday he never imagined he would be standing at a podium at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel more than five decades later, receiving an award in recognition of his entrepreneurial and business success.
Walker was one of four community leaders recognized Saturday at the biennial EPOCH (Eta Phi Omega Community Heroes) Awards Brunch, hosted by the Eta Phi Omega graduate chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
“The award ceremony shines a spotlight on people in the minority community who are doing wonderful things,” said Diane Price, chairwoman of the EPOCH Awards Committee. “These are people who have been ‘caught doing good.’ They are always surprised to be receiving the accolade.”
Individuals were recognized for their contribution in four areas: Walker for business and economics; the Rev. Sarad A. Davenport, education; the Rev. Dale Johnson, health and global poverty; and Roland A. Wiggins, the arts.
“Each [recipient] contributed so much to the community in their own way,” said sorority member Holly Edwards. “They have each followed their own unique journey.”
Walker, who was born in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, owns Mel’s Café, a restaurant described as a “landmark” of the Charlottesville area. The sorority recognized him for his entrepreneurial spirit and inspirational determination to run his own business.
Davenport, a Charlottesville native, is pastor of the New Green Mountain Baptist Church in Esmont and a member of the Alliance for Black Male Achievement. He also serves as executive director of the City of Promise of Charlottesville, an initiative that provides holistic support for underserved youth.
Sorority officials thanked him for his work in building “cradle-to-college pathways [and] cultures of success in underserved communities.”
When accepting his award, Davenport recited a quote from author James Baldwin that he said represented why he has given his life to working with youth.
“‘They are all our children,’” he said. “‘We will profit or pay for what they become.’”
Johnson, who has a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in theology, is executive director of the Helen Project International, a nonprofit that provides assistance to grandmothers in African nations who are raising orphans affected by or infected with HIV and AIDS.
Johnson said she was inspired to launch the project by the example set for her by her grandmother Helen.
“There is an African proverb which states, ‘When you follow the path of your father, you learn to walk like him,” she said. “I have amended that to, ‘When you follow the path of your grandmother, you learn to walk like her.”
Her project has allowed for grandmothers to build their own businesses to support their families, as well as provided for the construction of a women’s center and hostel in Kenya.
Wiggins, former director of the Luther P. Jackson Cultural Center at the University of Virginia, is a music theorist and distinguished pianist. Having performed and lectured with world-class musicians across the nation, he has devoted his life to training aspiring musicians and advocating for music education.
“My voice is starting to crack from all this love,” he said, as he approached the podium.
Six graduating high school seniors also were recognized at the ceremony. Scholarships were bestowed upon the women for their high academic performance and commitment to service.
The scholarship winners were Kendra Hairston, Albemarle High School; Tyshera Chambers, Buckingham County High School; Monique Brown, Charlottesville High School; Bria Williams, Charlottesville High School; Sasha Morgan, Fluvanna County High School; and Jaelyn Morse, Monticello High School.
EPOCH’s Price said the awards ceremony align with the sorority’s mission.
“These are individuals who commit their daily lives to service,” she said. “The people of Charlottesville are grateful.”