Eta Phi Omega Chapter President Patrice Hayden congratulates scholarship recipient Maya Burton. Credit: Credit: Talia Wiener, Charlottesville Tomorrow

The ballroom at the DoubleTree Hotel was overflowing. Women in pink and green greeted each other, embracing and waving across the room. An announcement asked for seats to be taken, and the room became quiet.

The Eta Phi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Incorporated hosted their biennial Eta Phi Omega Community Heroes Awards on Saturday, honoring students and community members who have exemplified the sorority mission: To be supreme in service to all mankind.

“We really believe in giving back to our community and working to address the needs of the community. But it’s also important that we take time to recognize others that are doing the same,” said chapter President Patrice Hayden. “In a climate that seems like it’s very rife with unhappiness and discord, I think it’s also a nice thing for us to come together and just celebrate each other and to appreciate all that people are doing to make Charlottesville and our surrounding communities better.”

The EPOCH Awards, while only in its third iteration, are the product of many awards events past. Originally known as the Man of the Year Award, the honors were dubbed the Spirit Awards until 2013 when the EPOCH awards were created to honor the chapter’s 50th anniversary.

Sorority member Lelia Brown, a member for 64 years and one of three Eta Phi Omega charter members still alive, emphasizes the importance of the awards ceremony and its recognition of community members making a difference.

“[It’s] so people won’t forget people are contributing,” Brown said. “I had to ride in the back of the bus, being born in 1935, and I remember when the law was changed. A lot of things have changed.”

EPOCH award recipient Andrea Copeland-Whitsett is a Charlottesville native, director of member education services with the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce and the founder and president of Positive Channels, a media production company. She is no stranger to the promotion of community members and groups working behind the scenes, entities she calls “quiet storms.” Her work for Positive Channels was based upon bringing to light the positivity in the community.

“I called it Positive Channels because at the time I started it, I was seeing so much negativity on TV,” Copeland-Whitsett said. “It was highlighting individuals in our community who are doing good things. We have a tendency that the bad people and the bad news tend to get all the news, but I just wanted to use my resources with media to focus on those good, positive things … There are a lot of good people doing good things.”

Other EPOCH award recipients included local artist Frank Walker, University of Virginia Athletics Director Craig Littlepage and Assistant Dean of the UVa School of Medicine Marcus Martin.

Martin, who says he arrives in his office at 6 each morning to pray for both the Charlottesville and UVa communities, feels his successes are due in part to those around him and are a response to his spirituality.

“These are not my accomplishments alone. God wakes me up every morning” Martin said. “Although I may be fighting and saying, ‘Oh, I want to do this, I want to do that,’ invariably, the right answer comes. I tell my kids and I’ll be telling my grandkids, we need to do less talking and more listening.”

Walker, another Charlottesville native, was particularly appreciative of the award. A graphic artist with exhibits around town, he worked as a medical illustrator at UVA for 17 years.

“My mother-in-law says, ‘Send me my flowers when I’m alive, don’t wait to give them to me until I’m gone,’” Walker said. “For an artist, it is just overwhelming to get recognition while you’re still alive. It really means everything to you. It’s not about money. It’s about having someone notice that you had done something, and a significant something.”

In addition to the EPOCH Awards, five local high school graduates were presented with the Lilieth G. Meadows Scholarship, in memory of the woman who played an instrumental role in chartering the Charlottesville chapter. The recipients wrote essays about a service project they completed and were selected from a large pool of entries.

Scholarship winners who will each receive $500 are Diana Harley from Albemarle High School, Alexis Henderson from Charlottesville High School, O’nae Harris from Fluvanna High School, Makayla Coles from Louisa High School, and Maya Burton from William Monroe High School. 

“We say finish the first semester, send us your transcript and we’ll send you something the second semester,” EPOCH Awards coordinator Diane Price said. “A lot of the young ladies and gentlemen are surprised. They think they’re going to get it up front, but then they say, ‘You know, I thought back, and that’s really when I needed it more.’”

Littlepage, the first African-American athletics director in the Atlantic Coast Conference, shared a message with the scholarship winners.

“You will find — if you already have not found — that life is full of setbacks and failures,” Littlepage said. “Our job as the adults, and your job as you’re ascending in your lives, is to be able to find the appropriate response… The best thing about life is we can go through these setbacks and failures and come out the other side as better people.”