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Work & Purpose

Meet the New AARP Purpose Prize Winners

How these 50+ people use their life experience to create social change


Ten-year-old Shirley Acevedo Buontempo didn’t speak a word of English when her family emigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1973. Seven years later, she was the first in her family to go to college. “My mother was always insistent that I was going to go to college,” Buontempo, now 56, said. “She had a dream for me, and it transformed my life.”

Shirley Acevedo Buontempo

Today, Buontempo is the founder of Latino U. College Access (LUCA) in White Plains, N.Y, a nonprofit that helps first-generation low-income Latino students enroll in and graduate from college. And AARP announced today that Buontempo’s work — and the work of four others — is being honored by winning the 2019-2020 AARP Purpose Prize. (My interview with Buontempo, and an AARP video of one of the new Purpose Prize winners, are at the end of this article.)

Who Gets the AARP Purpose Prize

The AARP Purpose Prize award goes to impressive people 50+ using their life experience to create social change. Each Purpose Prize winner receives $60,000. AARP also just tapped nine AARP Purpose Prize Awards Fellows — basically runners-up — who will each receive a $5,000 award to further the mission of their organization.

“We’ve been impressed by both the volume of applications for the AARP Purpose Prize and by the high standard of applicants, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins told Next Avenue. “This year’s AARP Purpose Prize winners and fellows are true heroes in their communities and beyond — and we’re proud to honor them.”

There’s something about entering the fifth decade, or later, that spurs a desire in many people like Buontempo to soul-search about what truly provides meaning in their lives and how they can help solve thorny social problems that disturb them. It strikes the chord of big cosmic questions such as “Is this all there is?” and “What will I be remembered for?”

That’s what led the nonprofit Encore.org to create the Purpose Prize originally. Three years ago, the group passed the baton to AARP.

Meet the Other Purpose Prize Winners

The other four 2019-2020 AARP Purpose Prize winners:

  • Georgette Bennett, 72, founder of New York, N.Y.-based Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. A child of Holocaust survivors and a refugee herself, Bennett leads the largest U.S. multifaith response to the Syrian crisis, comprising more than 100 faith-based and secular organizations committed to aiding Syrian war victims.
  • Sister Edna Lonergan, 76, founder of St. Ann Center in Milwaukee. Lonergan’s experience operating an adult day care facility in the 1980s, where she was struck by the isolation many older people experience, inspired her to create an innovative approach to care that breaks down barriers of ageism and bonds generations. The result: the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, a day services center for people of all ages.
  • Paul Leon, 64, founder of Illumination Foundation in Orange County, Calif. Leon discovered his mission while working as a critical care nurse and witnessing children living on California streets with their families. A desire to help break the cycle of homelessness was the catalyst for the Illumination Foundation. Its Recuperative Care Program is the country’s largest managing the discharge of homeless patients from hospitals.
  • Wintley Phipps, 64, founder of U.S. Dream Academy, in Vero Beach, Fla. As a Seventh-day Adventist minister and gospel performer, Phipps spent much of his career doing prison ministry. In the wake of that work, he founded U.S. Dream Academy to serve the children of incarcerated parents, who themselves are often at risk of incarceration. His goal: getting the kids to believe in themselves and to succeed.

 The AARP Purpose Prize Fellows

This year’s AARP Purpose Prize Fellows:

  • Im Ja Choi, 71, Philadelphia, Penn Asian Senior Services (to help older Asian adults in Southeast Pennsylvania age in place at home)
  • Adele Della Torre, 65, Minneapolis, Ready Set Smile ( which empowers local children to care for their oral health)
  • AnnMaria De Mars, 60, Santa Monica, Calif., 7 Generation Games (improving children’s math scores using video games)
  • Linda Eagan, 65, Fulton, N.Y., Fulton Block Builders (a neighborhood revitalization program)
  • Beth Ehrhardt, 63, West Valley City, Utah, Senior Charity Care Foundation (providing charity care to qualified older adults in care facilities or senior apartments)
  • Gregg Kander, 58, Braddock, Pa. (a community-driven developer building an apartment for artists)
  • Molly MacDonald, 68, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., The Pink Fund (a nonprofit paying non-medical cost of living expenses to breast cancer patients in active treatment for breast cancer. MacDonald was previously profiled on Next Avenue.)
  • Vicki Sokolik, 58, Tampa, Fla. Starting Right Now (helping homeless youth and connecting them with mentors)
  • Kirk Whisler, 67, San Diego, Latino Literacy Now (which promotes literacy in these areas: educational, financial, reading health and community awareness)

My Interview With AARP Purpose Prize Winner Shirley Acevedo Buontempo

Motivated after working in local nonprofits and shepherding the college application process for her own daughters, now 26 and 24, Buontempo saw a need for bilingual support for low-income Spanish-speaking families and students to help make a college education a reality like her own. Only 22% of Latino adults in the United States hold an associate degree or higher, compared to 39% for all adults, according to Excelencia in Education.

Here’s what Buontempo told me about why, and how, she does what she does:

Why she started Latino U College Access (LUCA): “I founded Latino U College Access in 2012 because I saw that many low-income Latino youth in my community lacked the resources necessary to understand the college process. I wanted to increase college enrollment and completion among first­  generation Latino students like me. When I went through the process with my own daughters, I realized how much more complex it was than when I applied in 1979.

“I knew I had the background. My education at Pace University and subsequent career working in the field of Hispanic marketing and advertising, plus nonprofit experience as volunteer and program manager at Neighbors Link and assistant director of client services at The Community Center of Northern Westchester, along with my cultural background, gave me the resources.”

What LUCA does: “We started by holding community information sessions in Spanish at local high schools in  my community, Westchester County, to review financial aid, the college application process and possible scholarships with students and their parents. We still hold these boot camps using Spanish-language presentations and materials.

But the heart of our program today is The Latino U Scholars program which matches a high-potential, Latino student with a college coach throughout their senior year in high school for one-on-one support. We collaborate with the high schools that have a Hispanic student population of fifty percent or more and their guidance counselors. We are the partner with the student and family to make sure all the deadlines are met from writing essays to financial aid applications. We also help evaluate the offers that come in and the acceptances.

When we first started, there were only two students. Now, in the 2019 cohort, there are thirty-six scholars, all whom received a total of two hundred and seventy one college acceptances and over $5.3 million in financial aid offers. To date, there have been a hundred and seventy six Latino U Scholars and over forty five hundred parents and students have attended our workshops.

We remain with our scholars throughout their college years as a network of support and community with their peers and other scholars. We also help them learn to network, craft a resumé and apply for internships. “

Biggest challenge: “Fundraising. In the nonprofit world, everyone is asking for donations. I was unpaid for the first couple of years, working on a shoestring budget and trying to establish a successful organization that would attract, inspire and motivate support from donors and funders.”

Biggest reward. “What really warms me is watching a student’s parents cry when their child is accepted to a college. They sacrifice so much for their child to have a brighter future and achieve the American dream.”

What she plans to do with the $60,000 Purpose Prize money: “My dream is to use the funds to help enhance and deliver our services. This year, we had a hundred nominations for student scholars to work with, but because of our staffing could only take on forty students. And it would be a goal to scale our model so it could be transferred to other communities on a broader national platform.”

By Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life. She  has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among other publications. She is the author of a dozen books including Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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