Eli Williamson, Luther College class of 2002, has been awarded Luther College's Young Alumni Award for his leadership and creativity in blending life's work with service.
Williamson's Luther roots date back to the 1960's when the civil rights movement was at full tilt, there were assassinations of American leaders, Vietnam was raging, student protests were common and his parents fell in love on Luther's campus. Willard Williamson and Arlivia Owens were among the first African American students to graduate from Luther in 1971 and 1972 respectively. Since then several family members and a long list of friends have attended Luther due to their connection with the Williamsons. Willard and Arlivia were featured in the Winter 2014 issue of the Luther Alumni Magazine in the article "The Williamsons: Leading by Example."
Among friends attending Luther was Eli Williamson's childhood friend from Chicago, Roy Brown Sartin, Luther class of 2002, who majored in business while Eli majored in communication studies. Both joined the Army Reserve as a way to defray college costs in 1999. The events of 9/11 happened during their senior year, and both were called to active duty.
Williamson was able to complete his Luther degree by joining the active duty Army and attending the Special Warfare Training Center at Fort Bragg. He deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and later to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. Sartin was forced to put his education on hold and deploy to Iraq, later returning to complete his degree.
Like most students both had college loans, but it was while serving in the war zone that they had a revelation. Banks were calling them about payments. Sartin said, "I'm on the other side of the world worrying about (bombs)… and some loan officer is harassing my mother over $82.67." The two friends met other young veterans facing significant college debt and other economic hardships returning from the battlefields in the Middle East to an American economy in recession. While their original intent was to serve their country and perhaps benefit from the military's education programs, they quickly learned that many student loans are not covered by today's G.I. Bill.
With passion and plausibility Williamson and Sartin co-founded Leave No Veteran Behind, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that provides educational, employment and community service opportunities for veterans facing economic hardship. As president and executive director of the foundation, Williamson is a savvy communicator, utilizing the help of fellow Luther alumni, Maynard Anderson '54, Russ Bruemmer '74, Guy Nave, Luther associate professor of religion and others to recruit a board of directors and advisors for the foundation that reads like the Who's Who of the American military.
The program has benefited from front-page coverage in the Chicago Tribune, online coverage in The Huffington Post and celebrity endorsement from Oprah.
LNVB is in its fifth year, has an annual budget of over 1.5 million dollars, and provides executive leadership training, employment skills training, transitional employment and employment partnerships, all to veterans in need of assistance. To ensure community investment, Williamson established the requirement that veterans who receive help through the programs must give back a minimum of 10 hours of community service. The amount of money devoted to clients relative to the cost of operations is 82 percent and rising.
Williamson also serves veterans in his full-time job as director of veteran's affairs with The McCormick Foundation in Chicago. He is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project in Washington D.C., a fellow with Mission Continues in St. Louis, an active member of Windsor Park Lutheran Church and a master's candidate at DePaul University's School of Public Service. He and his wife Laura Dignani-Williamson reside in Chicago with their two daughters.