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NASW Selects MSW Student for Lyons Scholarship

Oklahoma native’s service focused on Black youth in Alabama

By David Miller

June 16, 2021

MSW candidate Riley Raynor is the University of Alabama School of Social Work’s first NASW Foundation Verne LaMarr Lyons Scholar.

The Foundation Monday notified Raynor of the honor, which includes a $4,333 scholarship. Raynor is one of six MSW students across the country to receive a Lyons Scholarship this year.

Two black females pose for a picture outdoors

MSW student Riley Raynor, right, has worked with education outreach organization Breakthrough Birmingham for three years.

Raynor, a 2020 BSW graduate (summa cum laude), will fulfill her field placement this fall at the Youth Services Institute in Tuscaloosa. She said receiving the scholarship will significantly ease the financial burden of working multiple part-time jobs during her placement.

The Verne LaMarr Lyons Scholarship was founded in 2003 and is awarded to MSW candidates “who demonstrate an interest in or has experience with health/mental health practice and have a commitment to working in African American communities.” This scholarship is a memorial to Verne LaMarr Lyons, a social worker and NASW national staff member who died in 1989, while waiting for a heart transplant. Lyons was committed to raising awareness for health concerns affecting the Black community.

“My entire education and career thus far have been dedicated to serving and empowering Black youth, and to receive a scholarship that is centered around just that makes me feel incredibly proud and thankful,” Raynor said. “Verne Lyons dedicated his life to serving Black people who are suffering disproportionality from the same epidemics we are suffering from today: AIDS, maternal mortality, infant mortality, and more. I am honored to carry a scholarship dedicated to his legacy.

Raynor is passionate about social justice issues, particularly those affecting Black and queer youth. She has worked for community education organization Breakthrough Birmingham, where she started as a teaching fellow and has since ascended to operational administrator. Raynor also serves as a graduate research assistant for the SBIRT grant team through the VitAL initiative, which has allowed her to take part in statewide collaborative efforts to prevent and treat mental health and substance abuse disorders.

Through all her academic success and community work, Raynor says she cherishes her work with Breakthrough Birmingham the most. The summer camp-style learning program emphasizes “student ownership, joy, and individualized learning,” while also connecting students to “leaders and innovators,” Raynor said.

“It has been a blessing to work for an organization that aligns with my values,” she said. “Whether it is Black Lives Matter, election season, or Pride month, Breakthrough Birmingham is always outspoken and progressive when it comes to supporting our scholars and families, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, religion, first language, etc.

“It is an honor and a joy to grow as a leader, a person, and a professional with people who push me each day to be the best version of myself. This work has been extremely rewarding and educational, and I hope to continue it for as long as my journey allows me to.”

After she completes her MSW, Raynor hopes to continue educating and empowering Black youth, and working with organizations that align with her mission and values.