Summer Owens with mother and 101 year-old grandmother at the S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree
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The Success of the Inaugural S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree

One night about six years ago, I had a dream about an awards and scholarship program.

I’ve been a part of several awards programs either as a recipient or helping to plan the event, and I knew I wanted this one to be special.

On April 29, 2023 my dream was realized.

With the help of my childhood friend and S.O. What! Foundation board secretary, Bilicia Hill, and respected event planner, Cynthia Daniels, the Inaurgural S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree was beyond special. It was an incredible celebration sharing powerful stories of resilience, success and community contributions. From the moment the elegant black-tie event began, the excitement was palpable. Guests united in their support for the S.O. What! Foundation and the honorees, mingled, laughed, and enjoyed the event. I hosted the event, and invited Barbara Prescott who is so kind, beautiful and a respected leader in the city to join me as host. It was perfect!

Summer Owens and Barbara Prescott hosting the Inaugural S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree

The honorees were the stars of the night, each one a shining example of the S.O. What! message of resilience, perseverance and hope. Dr. Mario Brown, Commissioner Charlie Caswell Jr., Deborah Hester Harrison, Fred Jones Jr., Terrell Monger, Roy Ray, LaDeia McNeal, Beverly Robertson, and Dr. Christina Rosenthal all received recognition for their outstanding contributions to their communities.

Their stories of triumph in the face of adversity, of perseverance through hardship, and of dedication to their communities, were truly inspiring. Their powerful stories were included in the printed program, and their acceptance speeches were moving!

Inaugural S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree honorees

But the S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree was not just about honoring exceptional leaders. It was also an opportunity to support the S.O. What! Foundation’s scholarship initiatives. Through generous donations and contributions from attendees, the Foundation will provide scholarships to deserving students. The scholarships, announced by our new executive director, Netisha Burnett, are the S.T.E.P. – O.U.T. program scholarships, the Curtis Owens Memorial Scholarship, and one other special scholarship. Future S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree events will feature scholarship recipients,

One of the highlights of the evening was the announcement of the Bertha Rogers Looney and Summer Owens S.O. What! Success Endowed Scholarship at the University of Memphis. Bertha Rogers Looney, a member of the Memphis State Eight, delivered a powerful speech sharing her story of resilience. The scholarship is to honor Bertha Looney as well as our unique relationship.

Memphis State Eight's Bertha Rogers Looney at the S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree

When she came to the University of Memphis she was not welcomed, and faced challenges simply for being black. When I became a student, my experience was completely different. I was welcomed and wanted. And I went on to become Ms. University of Memphis, president of the national alumni association, and the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Awards.

I recognize and respect that my great experience was only because she endured what was not a great experience. Today, Bertha Looney is my dear friend, and I will honor her and make her name and the Memphis State Eight known in every way I can.

It was intentional for me to hold the first S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree at the University of Memphis. Not only because of my special relationship with Bertha Looney, but also because it is where my S.O. What! Success story began. As a freshman with a two-year old son, I was embraced and exceeded my own expectations there.

And the night was extra special because my mother and my 101 year-old grandmother were there. It was a beautiful full circle moment because my grandmother was the reason I was able to move to Memphis and become a full-time student in 1997. My son lived with her my first year of college. I went home to her house almost every weekend and brought him back to Memphis as often as I could, but he lived with her. I owe my grandmother so much for allowing me the opportunity to start my journey as a college student and begin my journey that changed the trajectory of my entire life. She was 73 then.

Summer Owens with mother and 101 year-old grandmother at the S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree

We ended the night with a surprise resolution for every honoree which was sponsored by Commissioner and board member Charlie Caswell Jr.

Shelby County Commission resolutions for the S.O. What! Awards honorees

The S.O. What! Awards and Scholarship Soiree was a night of celebration, inspiration, and generosity. It was a reminder that no matter what challenges we face, we can overcome them with resilience, determination, and support from our communities. The S.O. What! Foundation is doing important work in providing scholarships and support to those who need it most, and this event was a testament to our commitment to making a difference in the world.

I am beyond grateful for every person who showed up for this special event.

So what about your dream? Time to make it come to life too!