Above is my wife, Leah’s, and my first Christmas ornament ever.
We got this when we were in college together after Coca-Cola had just paid for my first year of school, and we have hung this ornament together on every tree we’ve had for 22 years. It’s always the first ornament we put on our tree with our two daughters, and it’s the last one we take off.
As we were decorating our tree this year, I thought about how it really demonstrates how much the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation means to our family.
Becoming a Coke Scholar
For almost three decades, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation has been a substantial presence in the education of so many young professionals, and I am a prototypical example of this influence.
In 1994, when I received notice of my scholarship award as a high school senior, it was the defining moment that assured I would have the opportunity to attend college. Without Coca-Cola, I would have been on an entirely different career pathway, one that didn’t involve a traditional academic education, but today I get to live my dream as a Board Certified General and Vascular Surgeon.
As a recipient of a scholarship that played a pivotal role in my academic matriculation, my heart has been warmed in the search for opportunities to plug back into others that shared the same financial difficulties and challenges that I experienced.
Responding to Tragedy
In 2013, one such opportunity arose out of a local tragedy, and Beautiful Day Foundation was born. My hometown community witnessed crisis at the hands of local youth who had lost their direction. After this incident, it was evident there was a need to help our young people find purpose.
People have an intrinsic need to truly belong and to matter to their community. Community, in its purest sense, is more about a feeling of belonging and acceptance and less about a zip code.
Beautiful Day Foundation began as a grassroots movement to celebrate one of the most important days in an elementary school kid’s life: their birthday. We believe that if children could know that the day they were born mattered, then we would also teach them that their lives matter. With this mission in mind, we found an opportunity to go inside our elementary schools and throw a birthday party for every child during their birthday month, sitting with them face-to-face in their cafeterias, telling them “the day they were born was a Beautiful Day.”
Damien’s Beautiful Day
Last year, one of the birthdays I celebrated was Damien’s – he was turning 8. I sat across from him in his dinosaur shirt at an elementary school lunch table, where the seat was much lower to the ground than I ever remembered, and I don’t suppose in all my life I have ever seen a kid more excited about his birthday. From the moment I sat down, Damien had begun telling me about his “beautiful day.”
What I didn’t know, and would later learn from his story, is that after school on this particular Thursday, Damien was going to meet his father for the first time. Most of us don’t think about not knowing one of our parents, but for Damien, this was the center point in his life. I don’t know what was more therapeutic for him – the Burger King kid’s meal we brought him, or the chance to tell me about his dad. But the cardboard crown that sat on his head that day was a perfect symbol for how Damien felt.
I celebrated lunch with him for almost an hour, but the hard frog in my throat took me months to swallow. It further opened my eyes to the need for us to be engaged with each other. These may be our smallest community members, but they are also our mightiest.
Expanding the Impact
What began with celebrating 107 kids in one school in 2013 has grown to 4,000 kids in 12 schools across 8 different school districts during this school year alone! Our volunteers, our board members, and over 100 educators share the same passion: ensuring each child knows they are worth celebrating for no other reason than that they exist – that they were born!
Beautiful Day aspires to have a lasting and significant impact on the communities it serves. We believe that by celebrating these now 4,000 children, we are consequently creating long-term positive social changes. As Beautiful Day creates a sense of belonging between the people we serve and their own communities, it’s our belief that these same people will then have a natural sense of responsibility back to their community.
And an added bonus? The generation of enthusiasm in our volunteer base. We were pleasantly surprised to see a passion for our youth grow out of the opportunity to serve and resultantly energize our community’s teachers, so they know they have the support of the community where they serve. One principal reports that Beautiful Day has brought more community volunteers into his elementary school than any other program in the school’s history.
As I reflect on Beautiful Day’s impact, it makes me think of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, our treasured family ornament, and what Coca-Cola did for me 24 years ago – they believed in me. Their encouragement and support empowered me to reach my fullest potential, and now I can share that encouragement with these children.
Over the last three decades, through its continued alumni development and enablement of its scholarship recipients, the Foundation has made – CCSF has infused almost 5,900 philanthropic leaders into our nations tapestry. And at a time where our citizens are starving to be included and feel a part of something bigger, Coca-Cola is there to unite young people and bridge the gap of differences.
Dr. Che Miller is a 1994 Coca-Cola Scholar and Board Certified General and Vascular Surgeon in Duncan, OK. A founding board member of Beautiful Day Foundation, he is pictured here with his wife and Beautiful Day Foundation co-founder, Leah Miller.