Courtesy of the Yale Alumni Association

Last week, the Yale Alumni Association announced the three Yalies to be honored with the association’s Public Service Award. 

The awards are presented annually, recognizing service work that impacts the Yale community and demonstrates passion to the City of New Haven and a commitment to helping others, per the Association’s website. The recipients each year include a Yale College student, a graduate or professional school student and a member of the alumni body. The 2023 Yale Alumni Association Public Service Award recipients are Salvador Gómez-Colón ’25, Reginald Dwayne Betts LAW ’16 and Ryan Sutherland SPH ’20 MED ’26.

Gómez-Colón is a humanitarian and climate resilience advocate. Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he created the “Light and Hope for Puerto Rico” campaign in 2017 after the country was devastated by Hurricane Maria. The campaign distributed solar-powered lamps and hand-powered washing machines to over 3,500 families. 

“I feel immensely grateful to Yale and the Yale community for the award,” Gómez-Colón told the News. “Receiving this great distinction is further encouragement to keep supporting those on the frontlines of climate change at home and abroad.”

Following the campaign, Gómez-Colón led dozens of disaster-relief missions in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. He has also advised youth-led sustainability initiatives spanning four continents. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, CNN, The New York Times and NPR. For his service work, Gómez-Colón has received the President’s Environmental Youth Award, the Diana Award and the Puerto Rico Governor’s Youth Medal. 

Sutherland is the Executive Director of the New Haven Poverty Alleviation through Washing Soles Project, known as PAWS, a service organization in New Haven that works to provide shoes, socks and podiatrist hygiene kits to members of the community experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty. This year, PAWS collected over $120,000 in donated shoes, socks and hygiene products with the support of Soles4Soles and Bombas. 

While volunteering for New Haven’s Volunteer Medical Corps and the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness’s annual Point in Time count team, Sutherland told the News that one of the most common complaints their homeless patients and clients had was that their feet were sore from walking all morning and evening. 

“Some of them were on their feet upwards of 16 hours a day,” Sutherland told the News. “Some had shoes two sizes too small, and some wore damp, holey socks with shoes that were held together with duct tape.”

Wanting to help address their foot health and well-being, Sutherland told the News that he began looking for opportunities to volunteer. 

Sutherland served as the Executive Director of PAWS from 2019 to 2020 and resumed the role in 2022 when he returned to Yale for medical school. 

Since then, he has been involved in homeless outreach, working closely with an array of community partners through his prior work at Community Alliance for Research & Engagement at the Yale School of Public Health to convene the Coordinated Food Assistance Network. 

“I am honored to have received this award, but do not accept it without acknowledging what it means,” Sutherland told the News. “By receiving it, I hope to use this platform to call attention to the struggles our homeless, undocumented, and impoverished neighbors face. I hope that the issue of homelessness and extreme poverty will be increasingly brought to light after receiving this award and am honored that Yale finds my contributions to the New Haven community worthy to applaud.”

Sutherland also served as a member of the Community Leadership Team on the City of New Haven’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion project, as a community health advocate with the Sex Workers and Allies Network and has collaborated with multiple local area food pantries to host shoe and coat giveaways with PAWS.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, educator, legal scholar, 2021 MacArthur Fellow and Founder and CEO of Freedom Reads, an organization that works to improve access to literature in prisons.

While earning his J.D. from Yale Law School, Betts became an advocate for the New Haven community by working in the city’s Public Defender’s Office, where he represented local students facing expulsion. 

In 2020, Betts founded Freedom Reads with a $5.25 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. The only organization in the country to provide libraries to prisons, Freedom Reads supports the efforts of incarcerated individuals to build new lives and seek new possibilities. Freedom Reads has established over 170 Freedom Libraries in 31 prisons and juvenile detention facilities across 10 states. 

Betts has published three collections of poetry, his memoir, “A Question of Freedom,” which was the recipient of the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction, and his most recent work, “Redaction.” In 2019, Betts won the National Magazine Award in the Essays and Criticism category for “Getting Out,” a New York Times Magazine essay that chronicles his journey from prison to becoming a licensed attorney.

“It is a huge honor because, when you are acknowledged it feels like Yale is honoring you but more importantly work that you chose to do,” Betts told the News. “Incarceration, literacy, books. They have all been central to my life.”

The winners will be honored on Dec. 5 at a ceremony hosted at the Rose Alumni House. 

Landon Bishop covers Accessibility at Yale. He is a freshman in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in Ethics, Politics, and Economics.