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As a champion and investor in education, Sylvia Ruth Byrd, who died at age 81 in April 2021, knew the incredible importance and value of learning — a lesson she passed down to her daughter and family.
“She really pushed education in my life and anything I can do to continue her legacy is why I’m here. I am her legacy,” Byrd’s niece Beverly Lathan, a board member of the Sylvia Ruth Foundation, said at the organization’s inaugural gala on March 18 at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Southeast, D.C.
As one of 15 children, Byrd’s family saw education as a key to success.
“We cherished education and passing it on,” said Lathan, whose father was one of Byrd’s brothers. “And that’s what she strove to do, was pass it on.”
Having spent much of her life donating time, resources and more to Howard University and District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Byrd’s instincts rubbed off on her family. Her daughter, and founding board member Stephanie Byrd has worked in District schools for decades, currently serving as principal at Payne Elementary in Southeast.
As Lathan and others attested, Byrd’s love for literacy and education was infectious. She often read to DCPS students, supported learning opportunities at Garnet-Patterson Middle School and tutored at Payne.
Now the foundation is passing on its namesake’s legacy.
“Ms. Sylvia Ruth loved to read to first graders and so we’d like to continue that tradition by supplying and supporting the teachers’ rooms with a library. Also, she was an employee and student at Howard University — a Bison — so we would like to support a scholarship for a deserving student,” Lathan explained.
Another family member bitten by the education bug, school psychologist Judith Anderson, of Cincinnati, who also serves on the board, said the foundation is valuable because its members go directly to the people they hope to support to ascertain their needs.
“We are actually listening to both the educators and the parents and students — so you have that triangle that we’re trying to mold,” she said.
The day before the gala, the foundation took to Southeast’s Martin Luther King Elementary to donate books.
“At our last visit, [they said they needed] decodable reading books. So we’re targeting those skill sets that they need to fill in those gaps, as well as for the students to be able to see the new faces of individuals who truly want them to succeed, and make it fun,” Anderson explained about the visit. “And we had a science book and we talked about a science project, so these were hands-on experiences.”
Guests flocked to St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church’s parish hall to not only celebrate the life and legacy of Sylvia Ruth and the current work of the foundation, but support future efforts.
“Our goal is to support a child of African American descent by funding a 529 for them to attend college from birth and to support that child and their family,” Lathan explained, adding the foundation appreciated donations for their current ventures, such as elevating classrooms and school libraries.
With drinks and food options flowing, and a DJ providing the tunes, guests danced the night away as they put in bids for auction items, including artwork, African American sorority and fraternity paraphernalia, and wardrobe consulting with stylist, entrepreneur and educator Joy Lawson. A party with a purpose, the foundation’s first gala raised more than $10,000 dollars through tickets and a silent and live auction. Guests had a ball.
“It was a success,” Lathan, who came from Cincinnati, said. “Of course, hard work always pays off. Everyone in attendance had a great time.”
Byrd’s youngest sister Sarah Doggett came from Arizona to take part in the inaugural gala festivities, which also coincides with the celebration of her big sibling’s birth. The foundation’s namesake was born on March 19, 1940.
Hosting the gala on her birthday weekend was no coincidence, and Doggett said its success is a sign that there’s more to come.
“I believe that this first annual gala will be the start of something that’ll be bigger,” Byrd’s baby sister — the 15th of the 15 — said.
For more information on the Sylvia Ruth Foundation visit sylviaruthfoundation.org. To donate visit: https://gofund.me/b5da6dc2.