Taylor Nelson ’13 was 3 years old when her mom became the founding executive director of the Northern Neck Free Health Clinic near her hometown of Weems, Va. She spent many hours in the clinic and learned how to count by calling out prescription numbers. She even made the clinic’s first donation box, covering it in pink hearts “to give it more pizazz.”
“The clinic really became my family and home, and it still is today,” said Nelson. “My mom taught me so much. Her passion just to give back and her fundamental caring for others, especially our community, was so infectious that I just sort of took it everywhere I went.”
On Charter Day, Nelson will be honored for the work she’s done as a result of that inherited passion for helping others. The William & Mary senior will be the recipient of the 2013 James Monroe Prize for Civic Leadership.
“The breadth of her activity alone is sufficient to garner the highest accolade,” said Drew Stelljes, assistant vice president for student engagement and leadership. “It is her commitment to understanding why such problems persist that is particularly admirable.”
The prize is presented annually to a student “who has demonstrated sustained leadership of an unusual quality, leadership combined with initiative, character and an unfailing commitment to leveraging the assets of the College community to address the needs of our society.”
“It’s absolutely such an honor,” said Nelson. “It was very overwhelming in a very good way to be recognized in this way. I am just so thankful for William & Mary and the campus, and especially for my mom, who really empowered me to do everything I do today. It was everyone else who helped me become who I am and who helped to empower me to do the things that I’ve done.”
Nelson, a sociology major and community studies minor, was active in service throughout high school, continuing to volunteer with her mother’s Northern Neck Free Health Clinic. However, at William & Mary, the long-time community service veteran discovered something new.
“It wasn’t until I got to William & Mary that I realized that community service, community engagement does not have to be separate from academics,” she said. “William & Mary has taught me how I can intertwine this engagement with my academic studies to enhance my understanding of how I can make this difference. This became really apparent through the community studies program and the Sharpe Community Scholars … it was just an inspiration.”
Building on her experience growing up, Nelson began working for Lackey Free Clinic in Yorktown, Va. During her time there, she has helped with the clinic’s day-to-day operations, met with local employers to let them know what services the clinic can provide and wrote four grant proposals to benefit diabetic patients. She also conducted research on the impact of healthcare reform on free clinics, creating an options comparison chart that was eventually distributed to all of the members of the Virginia Association of Free Clinics.
But Nelson has not limited her service work to the clinic. Combining her passion for healthcare, education and cooking with the need to address childhood obesity and diabetes, she created her own community-based research project on the effects of cooking-based nutritional education on reducing childhood obesity. Partnering with the School Health Initiative Project (SHIP) and Assistant Professor of Psychology Catherine Forestell, the director of the Center for Eating Behavior and Child Development, Nelson conducted a study within nine Williamsburg James City County elementary schools in 2011.
Nelson has also been very active in Branch Out Alternative Spring Breaks, helping Teach for America teachers and students in North Carolina, leading a group of students to work with the Health Wagon free health clinic in Clinchco, Va., and finally serving on the executive board for the Branch Out program. In that role, she coordinated with five community partners and trained 18 site leaders for nine spring break trips.
Nelson also served as an intern with Global Playground, a D.C.-based non-profit started by William & Mary alumni Edward Branagan ’03 and Douglas Bunch ’02. She also interned with Ashoka in Dublin, helping to coordinate the Change Nation summit at the 32nd Annual MacGill Summer School, which focused on the role of social entrepreneurship in Ireland’s economic recovery.
“[Social entrepreneurship] looks at giving back and community engagement in ways I hadn’t thought of before, such as looking into social innovation and the challenges of measuring social impact,” she said.
As she prepares to graduate in a few short months, Nelson is considering pursuing a degree in social entrepreneurship. For students who have a few more years to get involved in community engagement at William & Mary, Nelson urges them to not be afraid to “put themselves out there.”
“In community service and community engagement, there are lots of ups and downs, but you never really know what could happen if you never put yourself out there,” she said. “Taking a risk and putting your whole heart into it can be scary at times, but most of the time it is worth every minute of it.”
Nelson, who has worked in numerous communities, said that the community at William & Mary is one of the main reasons she chose the university. She wants her fellow students to always remember the sense of community that they found at William & Mary and use that memory to better the communities around them.
"We all make a difference in some way, big or small," she said. "You do not have to change the world to make a difference. To me, making someone smile can make a big difference in their life at that moment.”
When Nelson receives the Monroe Prize on Charter Day, hundreds will applaud her work, but there is one person who will likely be cheering the loudest: her mom.
“Mom started crying when I told her,” said Nelson. “She just always believed in me from the start, and I think that contributed so much to who I am today.”