Community Leaders

Even the biggest fans of Greater Cincinnati understand that our community faces challenges. Fortunately, we have these rising stars to thank for the important work they do to make our region a better place for everyone to live, work and play.

Renee Berlon, 32, UpSpring
  • Renee Berlon, development director, UpSpring
  • Hometown: Finneytown
  • Current neighborhood: Oakley

Why she’s so amazing: Berlon began working with nonprofits right after graduating from the University of Dayton. She completed a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working at a housing coalition in Detroit as a landlord-tenant counselor. Working with low-income families sparked her interest in making a direct impact in the community. She spent time at various organizations before she began to work in fundraising and found her niche. Berlon started at UpSpring last spring and has helped the organization triple its budget and double its staff to a total of six people. That growth means the organization can serve more local children experiencing homelessness.

“As much as I care about the kids, when I think about my role specifically with UpSpring, I like connecting people to helping them have an impact as well,” she said. “It’s one thing to say ‘yes -- I want to help these kids, too.’ It’s not me who’s opening up my pocketbook. It’s really building relationships in our region, finding people who also care about this and care about our future and these kids.”

Jena Bradley, 27, United Way of Greater Cincinnati
  • Jena Bradley, community engagement manager, United Way of Greater Cincinnati
  • Hometown: Madisonville
  • Current neighborhood: Walnut Hills

Why she’s so amazing: As a self-described “snarky teenager,” Bradley did her best to resist the advice of her guidance counselor at Walnut Hills High School when it came to college preparation. But she finally agreed to apply to Northern Kentucky University and ended up getting a four-year scholarship. She thought law school was in her future but ruled that out after a few law classes. She changed her focus to politics, but a series of internships made her realize that wasn’t the right fit either. Bradley finally realized that she loved people and “helping them reach their fullest potential,” and that’s how she got involved in nonprofit work. In her role at the United Way, she is pushing the century-old organization to do things differently by reaching out to nonprofits that serve communities of color that are disproportionately affected by the region’s high poverty rate.

“When I think about what my contribution is, it’s being a small part of a larger whole,” she said. “So if there’s something I can contribute to make a change, I do that. If my calling is to say, ‘Let’s push the way that we think to support differently,’ I’m happy with it.”

Kate Greene, 32, Center for Great Neighborhoods
  • Kate Greene, program manager of community development, Center for Great Neighborhoods
  • Hometown: Havana, Illinois
  • Current neighborhood: College Hill

Why she’s so amazing: Greene came to Cincinnati to attend graduate school at the University of Cincinnati after a stint in the Peace Corps in Moldova. The program included a part-time graduate assistantship, and within a month of starting the program Greene got placed at the Center for Great Neighborhoods in Covington. She fell in love with the work and the city and began working there full-time in 2014. Her job is to support efforts that are driven by residents that shape the community. The work “returns the decision-making and power back to the residents,” she said. “Everything we do is to support.” Among Greene’s favorites is the center’s nano-grant program, which makes $250 grants to individuals with plans to bring the community together in creative ways. Residents as young as 7 years old have applied for -- and won -- the grants.

“I think what’s most important to me is removing barriers to engagement. I think that every single resident in Covington has something to offer that can improve the community in some way,” she said. “I’m sort of standing on the shoulders of people who have been doing that work for years.”

Zack Huhn, 28, Smart Cincy
  • Zack Huhn, Smart Cincy
  • Hometown: Glendale
  • Current neighborhood: Avondale

Why he’s so amazing: Huhn has a classic Cincinnati story. He left town for college, found success, and came home to make a difference here. Huhn lived in Washington, D.C., from 2008 to 2016. He went there to attend American University but left college his freshman year to start a company. He sold that company in 2014 and moved home to figure out his next move. He realized that large pockets of the community were disconnected from technology and transportation, and he created Smart Cincy to encourage local government and institutions to work to make those connections throughout the Tri-State region.

“Creating equitable access to opportunities is the underlying theme of everything we’re doing,” he said. “What really excites me is that all of the partners involved in this initiative share in that thinking. We’re talking about how can we make people’s lives better so they’re not missing opportunities.”

Claire Luby, 29, St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati
  • Claire Luby, development manager, St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati
  • Hometown: Kenwood
  • Current neighborhood: Mount Lookout

Why she’s so amazing: Luby takes her work in the nonprofit sector very personally. She realized that as a high school student at St. Ursula Academy and went on a “mission trip” in Over-the-Rhine. “I felt this genuine connection, and I was surprised how easy it was to connect with folks in this situation, which was quite different from the situation I was in,” she said. “I went home, and I told my parents I was going to volunteer for the rest of my life.” Luby’s parents convinced her that she could work in the nonprofit sector instead, and that’s what she has been doing ever since she graduated from The Ohio State University. She has worked at St. Vincent de Paul for three years and has held her current job for the last two years. Luby said she loves helping donors understand why their gifts are needed. She likes to get them involved beyond just writing checks, whether that’s by volunteering or going with her on a home visit.

“I have the opportunity to open people’s eye to a whole other world and kind of broaden their outlook,” she said. “We’re able to connect with people that we would never otherwise have the chance to connect with, especially in the world we live in today.”

Megan Moore, 27, Lynx Project
  • Megan Moore, co-founder of the Lynx Project
  • Hometown: West Chester
  • Current neighborhood: West Chester

Why she’s so amazing: Moore and her colleagues formed the Lynx Project to raise awareness about art song, a centuries-long tradition of setting poetry to music in songs that are comparable to pop songs. As part of that work, the group reached out to some local students with autism. Moore’s sister works with students with autism and had told her that, despite the fact that some of the students weren’t verbal, they could communicate through a technique known as the rapid prompting method. Moore and her colleagues asked a group of teen boys with autism to write poetry and prose, and they had professional composers write music to accompany the work. They premiered the music in late October in Mason in front of an audience that combined people from the autism community and people from the arts.

“With the autism project, specifically, we were giving families an opportunity to experience performing arts in a place where they could bring their kids and feel comfortable to be themselves,” Moore said. “It has a community-building facet to it. We’re also just really passionate about getting involved in ways that we can share unheard voices. And these are voices that would go so easily unheard.”

Tyran Stallings, 39, D.A.D. Initiative
  • Tyran Stallings, founder and executive director of the D.A.D. Initiative
  • Hometown: Bond Hill
  • Current neighborhood: Springdale

Why he’s so amazing: Stallings was a middle school science teacher. And as much as he loved teaching, he felt limited in the difference that he could make in his students’ lives. So he left the classroom, started a consulting business and launched a nonprofit called the D.A.D. Initiative. The acronym stands for Directing Adolescent Development, and the mission is to give young men, ages 11 and up, positive male role models and mentors. Now in its fourth year, the program has grown to encompass 380 youth. And this year Stallings launched a pilot program in three local high schools to help student athletes. Stallings has roughly 35 men who volunteer with the program and serve as mentors. He uses a collective mentoring approach so that the youth can connect with several men in case one of the adults can’t show up at some point.

“We hope to make young men and women into productive contributors to society,” he said. “And we also hope to dispel a lot of myths and preconceived notions about African-Americans, in particular, and show that African-American men are very involved in young people’s lives and those kids are just as capable of thriving as any young person of any demographic as long as they’re given the opportunity.”

Candice Tolbert, 48, SuperSeeds
  • Candice Tolbert, executive director of SuperSeeds
  • Hometown: Mt. Healthy
  • Current neighborhood: Liberty Township

Why she’s so amazing: A tax preparer by training, Tolbert was inspired to get into nonprofit work after an incident involving her son. He was 12 years old, just starting the 7th grade, when the school suspended him for staring at a girl in his class. Tolbert asked if the girl had asked her son to stop and if he had refused. The school told her no, that the girl had been giggling about it, and her son stopped staring when the girl asked. Still, the school suspended her son. The story went international. And while Tolbert wasn’t able to reverse her son’s suspension, she learned that Ohio schools had suspended 200,000 children in 2014. And half those suspensions were for “subjective behavior,” such as the staring that got her son in trouble. “I thought, something needs to happen. Something needs to change,” she said. That’s when Tolbert launched SuperSeeds. The nonprofit provides school districts with alternate resources for discipline. The organization teaches conflict resolution, anger management and other skills that youth need to succeed. The biggest part of the program is Options Day. For that, participating schools tell parents that when their children have been suspended, they can attend the Options Day program for a day and a half and stay in school instead. The Options Day program takes students to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. They see arraignment court and what it’s like to be arrested. Then they hear from a panel of inmates. On the next day, they visit the University of Cincinnati and hear from students about what it takes to get to college and succeed.

“My vision long-term is that these kids will learn how to cope with life, even in their relationships, so we’ll see a decrease in the number of divorces. These are skills that they need to have inside the workforce, too,” she said. “I’m hoping that these kids will learn skills that they can carry for the rest of their lives.”

Billie Vega, 22, Cincinnati Works
  • Billie Vega, employment coach for Cincinnati Works based at the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati
  • Hometown: Western Hills
  • Current neighborhood: Price Hill

Why she’s so amazing: Vega is young, but she has plenty of life experience to be successful in her current job. As an employment coach at the YWCA, Vega helps clients improve their resumes and get the skills they need to find jobs that could change their lives. She was inspired by her own life experience. “I’ve been an individual who has been in poverty and had that struggle growing up as a kid and becoming a young adult as well,” she said. Vega started living on her own at 18 and spent time working at a call center for a big corporation. But she really wanted to be in a career focused on helping people. She became part of AmeriCorps and, through that program, began working for Cincinnati Works. After her year with AmeriCorps was over, a job with Cincinnati Works opened up. “All I needed was that one door just to be opened for me to get me where I need to be, and now I can do the same thing for others,” she said. She’s been with Cincinnati Works for a little more than two years.

“I just want to be that reliable resource that has a positive impact on someone’s day,” she said. “All I needed was just that door open. I just want to be there to walk that path with somebody else.”


Photos by Leigh Taylor or provided by honorees

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