The Yale Alumni Association Public Service Awards, formerly know as the Yale-Jefferson Awards for Public Service, are presented annually, recognizing sustained public service that is individual, innovative, impactful, and inspiring. The recipients are three Yalies – a Yale College student, a graduate or professional school student, and a member of the alumni body – all of whom have demonstrated service that draws on the Yale community and benefits the world beyond Yale.
This year the Yale Alumni Association honors three deserving candidates, Yalies who have given back and paid it forward, for their commitment to public service, passion and commitment to the New Haven community, and passion for helping others.
The 2023 YAA Public Service Award recipients are Salvador Gómez-Colón ’25, Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16 JD, and Ryan Sutherland ’20 MPH, ’26 MD. The winners will be honored on December 5, 2023, at a ceremony hosted at Rose Alumni House.
Salvador Gómez-Colón ’25
Yale is honoring Salvador Gómez-Colón for advancing climate resilience addressing humanitarian needs in vulnerable communities. After Hurricane María ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, Gómez-Colón knew the island’s situation was too dire. “I wanted to harness my empathy and give hope to those in despair. At first, I was unsure of what I could do. I was just a fifteen-year-old ninth grader. But I recognized people’s needs and took action.”
His Light and Hope for Puerto Rico initiative raised over $160,000 and reached 3,500 households across Puerto Rico. But that was only the beginning. Since then, Gómez-Colón has launched other disaster-resilience initiatives, including responses to Hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas and the 2020 Puerto Rico earthquakes. After Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico in September 2022, Salvador reactivated his field infrastructure to directly support over 1,100 households, finance the reconstruction of a community health center that serves rural elderly populations, and provide food supplies and resources for a community kitchen that serves 600 people per day. From his dorm room in Ezra Stiles, he coordinated the procurement of thousands of pounds of supplies, devised the mission’s logistics, and organized a group of more than fifty volunteers––primarily local high school students––to join him in his mission to Ponce, Yabucoa, and Peñuelas. As of September 2023, Salvador’s organization has collectively raised nearly $250,000 and directly reached 5,000 households across Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. In New Haven, Salvador has collaborated with the city’s Office of Climate and Sustainability since its inception, where he works on developing sustainability and resilience strategies that protect and empower New Haven’s working communities.
Salvador’s grassroots work has informed his advocacy for climate resilience at the highest levels of public fora. He was notably an opening panelist at the 2020 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and has spoken at events hosted by The Aspen Institute, United Nations constituent organizations, the Organization of American States, and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, among others.
He has also contributed opinion pieces for Time Magazine, CNN Opinion, and The Independent, among others. Norton published Hurricane: My Story of Resilience, his middle-grade memoir, in 2021.
Salvador is a junior at Yale College studying history and pursuing advanced studies in Mandarin Chinese.
Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16 JD
Yale is honoring Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet, lawyer, 2021 MacArthur Fellow, and Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads, for his passion and commitment to the New Haven community.
As Betts earned his JD from Yale Law School (Class of 2016), he early on became an advocate for the New Haven community by working in the New Haven Public Defender’s Office as a Liman Fellow and representing local students facing expulsion. As to that work at the time, Betts stated “I knew that I was helping a person who, without my services, wouldn’t have been helped in exactly the same way. My client ended up not getting expelled, and he’s on his way to finishing 11th grade in high school and, I think, graduating next year.”
In 2020, after staying in New Haven post-graduation, Betts founded Freedom Reads with a $5.25 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. Freedom Reads, headquartered in Hamden and employing several formerly incarcerated individuals, is the only organization in the country with a mission to provide libraries to prisons, and thereby support the efforts of incarcerated individuals to imagine new possibilities for their lives. To date, Freedom Reads has opened over 170 Freedom Libraries in 31 prisons and juvenile detention facilities across 10 states. These libraries provide a locus where conversation and community can begin inside and outside of prison walls. They are objects of beauty, handcrafted by teams that include people who themselves have served time in prison and populated with a 500-book, carefully curated collection that includes poetry, literature, non-fiction, and more. As Betts often declares, “Freedom begins with a book.”
Betts’s books include his latest work, Redaction, a collaboration with Titus Kaphar; three works of poetry – Felon, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, and Bastards of the Reagan Era; and his memoir, A Question of Freedom, which was the recipient of the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction. In 2019, Betts won the National Magazine Award in the Essays and Criticism category for Getting Out, his New York Times Magazine essay that chronicles his journey from prison to becoming a licensed attorney.
Ryan Sutherland ’20 MPH, ’26 MD
Yale is honoring Ryan Sutherland for his longtime leadership in advocating for the homeless, uninsured and undocumented populations in New Haven. He presently serves as the Executive Director of the New Haven PAWS Project and Community Outreach Director of the Neighborhood Health Project, two local community clinics that provide care to hundreds of New Haven’s most vulnerable.
With over 50 Yale-affiliated and community volunteers, PAWS engages the greater New Haven community in events centered around foot health, including foot washing services and shoe, sock, and hygiene kit giveaways. Under Ryan’s leadership, PAWS has given away over $100,000 in donations to those in need, partnering with national organizations like Bombas, Noir Et Ivoire, Soles4Souls, Coats4Souls, and Macy’s. Neighborhood Health Project serves hundreds of New Haven residents each year who are experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty, connecting them with vital community resources and screening them for Diabetes and high blood pressure.
Both clinics have supported and collaborated with a wide range of New Haven organizations like Loaves and Fishes, Sunrise Café, Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK), Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN), Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), New Reach, and Columbus House. Most recently, PAWS was honored as a beneficiary at the Yale School of Medicine’s 29th Annual Hunger & Homelessness Auction, and was one of the service organizations selected to attend the annual Maundy Thursday Foot Care for the Homeless event hosted by Trinity on the Green and Cornell Scott-Hill Health.
“There are so many people in need living in New Haven. And often, foot health issues are overlooked, and diabetes and hypertension often go undiagnosed or untreated. PAWS and NHP fill these gaps,” said Sutherland. Sutherland completed his MPH at Yale, graduating in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. “As the pandemic has shown us, there is so much left to do,” said Sutherland. “I needed to come back.”
Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16 JD photo credit: Mamadi Doumbouya, Communications Director for Awareness at Freedom Reads