Dalton Lucas knew her only as Mary.
He met her at West End Ministries, the local nonprofit that follows the motto, “We serve God by helping others.” Lucas worked there as its community garden coordinator when Mary came up to talk.
She was 60 and homeless. She came by to see Lucas almost every day, sharing with him the details of her life – getting evicted from an apartment and living on the streets because her monthly Social Security check couldn’t cover the rent.
When Lucas talks about Mary, his voice rises, and his hands move in rapid circles. He’s angry at what he sees. Thanks to what he’s learning at High Point University, he wants to put his education to work and help people like Mary.
“We’re the wealthiest country in the world, and we have people living on the streets,” he says. “What are we doing?”
Lucas, a junior originally from Virginia and studying political science, is one of two Extraordinary Leaders for the month of November.
He’s a Presidential Scholar, the recipient of five other scholarships and the president of HPU’s College Democrats. He’s also a Bonner Leader, a member of HPU’s acclaimed servant leader program where students commit 300 hours of community service over four years.
He’s worked with political campaigns, ran a local City Council campaign and helped coordinate a campus efforts that registered more than 1,500 HPU students to vote in a two-year period.
Ask Lucas about the roots of his interest in politics, and he’ll mention a news show he watched every morning before going to school. On a Wednesday morning in August 2015, Lucas got the shock of his life.
That morning, Lucas’ high school in Virginia went on lockdown because of a shooting less than 10 minutes away. A gunman fatally shot photojournalist Adam Ward and news reporter Allison Parker during a live TV interview on WDBJ, the CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia.
The gunman turned out to be a disgruntled ex-employee from WDBJ, and he died later that day from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
The shooting unnerved Lucas because he had watched Parker all the time on “Mornin’,” WDBJ’s morning news show. Lucas lived with his dad at the time, but that night, he spent the night with his mom.
Before he went to sleep, he laid flowers outside the TV station. Two years later, he did even more.
In 2017, when Parker’s boyfriend, WDBJ’s news anchor Chris Hurst, left his job to run for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, Lucas worked on his campaign. Lucas became Hurst’s “body man,” the person who shadows the candidate and helps him stay focused.
Hurst, a Democrat, ran on a platform that included gun safety. He won. Hurst was 30; Lucas, a high school senior, was 18. Two years later, Hurst was re-elected. Meanwhile, Lucas had moved in with his mom, and they relocated to Winston-Salem to be closer to her parents.
That’s how he found out about HPU. His grandparents talked up the school. He visited and loved what he saw and liked what he heard – the small class sizes, the mentorship from professors and the 97% job and graduate school placement rate after graduation.
Lucas, a first-generation college student, came.
HPU’s Helping Hands
As a Bonner, Lucas made West End Ministries his service-learning home.
He tutored children and managed the food pantry. Later in his freshman year, he accepted a part-time job as the community garden coordinator and turned a formerly overgrown plot into a garden once known years ago as Bountiful Harvest.
He knocked on 100 doors, recruiting neighborhood gardeners and bringing in volunteers. He also brought HPU students to help with weeding and planting. Together, Lucas and his fleet of volunteers created a garden that provided fresh fruit and vegetables to neighborhoods where healthy food was hard to find.
As he worked, Lucas befriended homeless people. He befriended Mary. He fed others. He met neighbors coming by for food and coming by to help. One of those was a Hispanic immigrant. He arrived in the United States a few years before.
Every week, after a long day working at a local electric company, he came to West End in his blue work uniform. He helped Lucas pull weeds before going home with a handful of cucumbers and tomatoes.
Lucas doesn’t remember his name. He does remember what he said: “Thank you so much for being here. I appreciate what you’re doing.”
As a Bonner, Lucas also has interned for the city of High Point in its Neighborhood and Community Development Office and helped residents find resources and services.
Those two part-time jobs complemented his third part-time job – cleaning on the weekends a building in High Point where his mom works as a day care teacher.
Lucas wanted to work. He’s been doing it since he was 15. Plus, money had always been tight in Lucas’ household. So, professors like Dr. Mark Setzler and the Rev. Dr. Joe Blosser helped educate Lucas on the best — and most affordable — route when applying for student loans.
“If you’re going to take the time to help me understand something as boring as the student loan process, that shows they’re invested in me,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about that. But they did. They helped. That’s a rare quality with any university. But I found that here.”
The Benefits of HPU’s Experiential Learning
Lucas received HPU’s Civic Engagement Award his freshman year, and the following year, he received another accolade — Male Sophomore of the Year.
But maybe the biggest reward came with what he discovered beyond the classroom.
He grew up in Bedford, Virginia, the tiny town in the state’s southwestern corner known for its D-Day Memorial and the 19 sons from Bedford who died the first day of the famous battle in World War II.
That was Lucas’ world. At HPU, his world grew. Blosser saw that happen.
As the director of HPU’s Robert C. Culp Service-Learning Program, Blosser gets to know all Bonner Leaders. With Lucas, Blosser noticed his drive to help others even before he began his freshman year.
“He came in with that impulse, and HPU helped develop his intellectual understanding of why he feels that responsibility,” Blosser says. “He learned how to use his privilege to stand behind those who would otherwise not be heard.”
An Education in Empathy
After working with Hurst’s campaign in Virginia, Lucas came to HPU as a field organizer for NextGen, a nonprofit founded by former presidential candidate Tom Steyer. Lucas worked to motivate young people to vote.
By his sophomore year, he did the same thing as a field organizer with the non-partisan Campus Vote Project. Between the two nonprofits he worked for, Lucas helped organize multiple voter registration events on campus that registered 1,500 HPU students to vote in two years. By 2018, the voting rate among students had increased by 15 percentage points in four years.
Then there is Jerry Mingo.
Lucas met Mingo while working at High Point’s community development office. Mingo, president of High Point’s Burns Hill Neighborhood Association, volunteered there. After getting to know Mingo, Lucas went from campaign organizer to campaign manager.
Last year, Mingo got involved in politics for the first time because he wanted more affordable housing and less blight in his hometown. Mingo ran for the seat on the City Council, and Lucas ran his campaign.
Mingo, an Army veteran and retired supervisor, is in his early 70s. When Lucas ran Mingo’s campaign, Lucas was 19, an HPU sophomore. Mingo is black; Lucas, white.
“What college student does that?” Blosser asks.
Hardly any. But Lucas did.
He wants to go into politics or go to law school to become a voting rights attorney, and he got involved with the High Point City Council campaign because he believed in Mingo.
“If I’m going into politics or voting rights,” he says, “I need to understand the perspective of people in all situations, not just my own.”
Lucas learned that at HPU. Before the pandemic hit, Lucas went to the University of Essex just north of London as part of HPU’s Study Abroad program. He studied government and history, traveled to seven countries and fielded questions about America everywhere he went.
This fall, he scored an internship researching and canvassing for the campaign of Kathy Manning. She was a Democrat running for an available seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
She won. Lucas did, too.
“Canvassing puts policy into perspective,” he says. “You’re out there talking to voters on their front porch, in a mask, and they’re telling you how they’re going to lose their health insurance, and they don’t know what they’re going to do. And those conversations convince me to knock on 100 more doors, Elections do matter.”
“Our Future Is On The Line”
HPU has provided Lucas a roadmap on how to affect change.
He’s represented the Bonner Leader program in HPU’s Student Government Association and helped them secure the funding needed to provide 40,000 meals for families in need on HPU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Service Day.
Meanwhile, he’s talked to voters three times his age and heard about their needs. From those conversations and many others, he has found his purpose. He knows he’s not alone.
“Our generation can’t afford to be on the sidelines,” he says. “The issues decided today will affect us tomorrow, so we cannot afford to not be in politics. Our future is on the line.”