Ovell Barbee: Donor Spotlight

Barbee thanks Ta-Wa-Si Athletic Association with donation

A former GRCC Foundation scholarship recipient has paid it back — by paying it forward.

The foundation hosted a special reception in May in honor of Ovell Barbee’s donation to the Herman & Velvie Green/Ta-Wa-Si Athletic Association (Marshall Booker Jr., Tommy Chambers, Bennette Gay Jr., Herman Green Jr., Lloyd Kilgore, David E. Selmon, Jimmy H. Walker and Johnny Walker) Scholarship. Attending were members of the athletic association as well as representatives from Spectrum Health, where Barbee is senior vice president of human resources and diversity officer.

Barbee was selected to receive the scholarship when he was senior class president of Creston High School, where he lettered in track all four years. That scholarship helped launch an academic career that includes a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Michigan and two master’s degrees: one in social work from U of M and the other in labor relations and human resources from Michigan State University.

“I have worked for large global organizations and currently serve as senior vice president of human resources and the diversity officer of Spectrum Health,” Barbee said in address at the reception. “I have also received recognition as one of the top 50 executives in the country under the age of 50.

“Who knew the possibilities of the kid who grew up across the street from MLK Park? You did — the men of Ta-Wa-Si!”

Barbee has never forgotten that early support from the Ta-Wa-Si Athletic Association and wanted to repay it by contributing to the group’s namesake scholarship. 

“I have embraced your commitment to the broader community and have now successfully paid back all of the nonprofit scholarship money provided to me,” he told association members.

But Barbee has also found his own way to help students reach their goals: the “Barbee Book Club”. “I regularly select students from the community who have a compelling story to me, and I agree to cover their books and supplies for four years of college.”

Kathy Mullins, the foundation’s executive director and vice president for College Advancement, said contributions from former scholarship recipients such as Barbee are extra special.

“Our recipients know first-hand how far reaching the impact of a scholarship can be,” she said. “So many of them tell us that it’s not just the financial help, it’s the confidence they feel knowing that people they don’t even know believe in them and their dreams. They return to us as donors, so that they can help other students feel this way.”

Ta-Wa-Si Athletic Association strives to help area youth with education expenses

A group of African American men started the Ta-Wa-Si Athletic Association in 1958 to help area youth further their education. Members include Eli Lumpkins, Marshall Booker Jr., Tommy Chambers, Bennette Gay Jr., Herman Green Jr., Lloyd Kilgore, David E. Selmon, Jimmy H. Walker and Johnny Walker.

In addition to sponsoring scholarships, the organization also helps many people with emergency funds. As Green said in a 1993 Grand Rapids Press article: “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve responded to requests to help students pay their housing bills or buy books.”

The association’s most visible event was the Ta-Wa-Si College Senior All-Star basketball game, which it ran from 1973 to 2005. Magic Johnson and Gregory Kelser were among the big college stars who played. The event has since evolved into the Davenport University-hosted ADDIX Basketball Champions Classic, for top high school senior players.