For centuries, researchers and theorists alike have debated over whether true leaders are born or made. For residents of Fayette County, the answer to this question is simple: both. Dawn Oparah has been a Fayette County resident of more than 25 years, and since childhood, has embodied every aspect of a leader—a skilled communicator, selfless trailblazer, compassionate collaborator, and constant inspiration. Not only does Dawn inherently possess the traits of a true role model, she wholeheartedly has dedicated every aspect of her life to developing leadership qualities in others. Through her many years of tireless volunteerism, civic contributions, consultations and programs, Dawn has demonstrated to the residents of Fayette County what it means to be a leader, and she has shared with them a life-defining truth—that both youth and adults alike can become valuable and significant contributors to their community.
Growing up in the small town of Sharon, in western Pennsylvania, Dawn learned early on from her mother what it meant to possess a servant mentality and exhibit the principles of leadership. “My mother was all about giving,” Dawn recalls. “She encouraged me to use my gifts to make the world a better place.” Dawn’s childhood marked the beginning of her lifelong quest to make a difference in the lives of others by putting the needs of others above her own and helping others to develop themselves into the best they can be.
“My lifelong ministry is twofold: to love and to serve,” Dawn states, further explaining that Stephen Grellet’s well-known observation has defined every step of her life: “I shall pass this way but once, therefore any good that I can do, any kindness I can show, let me not defer it or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”
One of Dawn’s most significant life events happened in 1974 at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, while she was pursuing her Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology and Psychology. “I remember meeting my [future] husband, Bernard, in the dormitory laundry room,” Dawn explains with a smile. “He was originally from Nigeria and seemed very exotic.”
Bernard was a biology pre-med major whose plan was to persue a master’s degree in counseling. Their similarities and interests brought them together again during Dawn’s junior year when they were both invited to attend a meeting that involved discussing the growing disconnect between African students and African American students at the university. Their chance meeting sparked a connection that would last a lifetime, and the couple was engaged just three months later. “Although we were both busy young people, we were old in our thinking,” Dawn comments. “Not only did we share a strong spiritual connection, but we spent time together pondering deeper questions, like our purposes in life.”
Shortly after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in December of 1977, Dawn married Bernard and moved to his hometown in Nigeria. Eleven months after their wedding, their family expanded with the birth of their first son, Chinenye Obioma. “It is a tradition in Nigeria to give children names that are reflective of events that are happening in your life at the time,” Dawn explains. “Chinenye means ‘a gift from God’ and Obioma means ‘a good heart’ in Igbo.” Two years later, she gave birth to the couple’s second son, Kelechukwu (whose name means “thanks be to God”). Also while living in Nigeria, Dawn put her college degree to work serving as faculty member for Government Teachers’ Training College, teaching a course entitled “Principles and Practices of Education.”
In 1983, Dawn and her family moved back to Pennsylvania so she could finish her Masters of Counselor Education degree in Student Personnel Services at her alma mater, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her higher education degree focused heavily on areas such as financial aid, student affairs, and residential life. It was also during that time that her husband completed his doctorate in counselor education and post-doctorate in school psychology. Over the next four years, Dawn and her family moved to Ohio, then finally down to Atlanta. While living in Atlanta, Dawn served as a school principal for Peace Lutheran Day School in Decatur. In 1989, when her husband decided to take a job in LaGrange, they made the decision to move to Peachtree City to raise their family.
Dawn’s legacy of community involvement and positive influence in Fayette County first began with her position as Coordinator for the Commission on Children and Youth for Peachtree City in 1990. Employed by the City of Peachtree City under Mayor Brown, Dawn used her position to mobilize the community to come up with a comprehensive plan to address the needs of young people and their families. She developed methods to engage the business, civic, and faith organizations along with local human service agencies around important issues such as drug usage and underage drinking. “During that time, there was a study done that pinpointed underage drinking as a prominent issue in Peachtree City. “I strove to create an environment where young people could engage in a healthy way as an alternative to substance abuse,” Dawn says. “I planned family-friendly events, including the ‘Last Fling’ at the Fred Brown Amphitheater and the Youth Triathlon.”
In the wake of her many community outreach projects, Dawn discovered her family was going to expand once again. The addition of daughter Ogechi (“in God’s Own Time”) in 1991 was followed by the birth of her youngest daughter, Chinonso (“God is Near”), in 1992.
“It was marvelous news,” Dawn recalls. “We had tried for 10 years beforehand, hence the meaning of Ogechi’s name.” Ogechi, now 22 years old and a recent Princeton University graduate, counts her mother as one of her biggest role models. “What I love about my mother is that she is a constant doer,” Ogechi says. “She works tirelessly to make life better for her family and her community. I aspire to lead the kind of challenging but fulfilling life that she lives out each day.”
Even with her growing family, Dawn never skipped a beat when it came to her commitment to servant leadership and helping others. In 1995, she began her own consulting business, Amadi Leadership Associates, Inc., which means “servant of the people.” Combining her passion for developing and guiding others with her vast experience in human service, she began providing training and consultation to a variety of organizations, agencies, businesses, and schools around the nation. Her services emphasized skill building and strategic planning, resource development, and non-profit board development, and covered a broad range of human service areas and human development issues. Dawn’s passion and expertise in her industry became obvious as her client roster began to grow and now (19 years later) includes roughly 100 companies and organizations such as the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, Atlanta Public Schools, American Red Cross, Georgia Southern University, the American Cancer Society, the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, and several of Georgia’s county school boards. In the midst of her expanding business, Dawn also authored a book, Make a World of Difference: Asset Building Activities to Help Teens Explore Diversity, which was later published in 2006 by Search Institute. The workbook provides three sections: personal-awareness activities, a section for building cultural awareness, and practice activities for trying out new relationship-building methods.
In 1996, after a student-initiated fight broke out at McIntosh High School, another opportunity arose for Dawn to focus on improving youth leadership skills in Peachtree City. After boldly stepping up to address the need for youth leadership and parent involvement in the area, Dawn co-founded the Association of Village Pride, Inc. (AVPRIDE). Dawn’s vision for the non-profit organization included more than just leadership development for students—she aimed to inspire the entire community to take action. “Here [in the United States] exist very nuclear families,” Dawn explains. “In Nigeria, children are raised and cared for not only by their immediate family members, but also by their extended families—friends, neighbors, and members of the community at large. I believe it is our moral obligation as adults to find a way to support our next generation, and invest in them in every way possible.” Since its inception, Dawn has served on the board of directors for 13 years and has guided the organization as a professional consultant during her years off the board. She has assisted in fundraising, grant writing, program design and implementation, and collaboration with several community leaders and organizations, all of which has helped to make AVPRIDE’s mission a reality.
Although Dawn has remained busy over the years with her growing consulting business and participation in AVPRIDE, she’s kept her servant leadership mentality and commitment to her community close to her heart. “I spent much time traveling for my consulting business,” Dawn recalls. “Although I was on the road often, I always made time to volunteer.” Dawn has served on 15 boards over the years — on local, national, state, and regional levels. Her board involvement has included volunteer time and leadership for Fayette County Prevention Alliance, Drug Abuse Prevention Partnership (DAPP), Georgia Prevention Network (GPN), Fayette County Family YMCA, The Council on Alcohol and Drugs (TCAD), Fayette County Crisis Intervention Team, Fayette County Superintendent’s Roundtable, Georgia Council on Substance Abuse (GCSA), Fayette County NAACP, and the Fayette County Community Foundation.
Given her involvement in so many civic organizations while balancing a growing family and business, one might wonder if Dawn gained superhero powers along the way. But she says that she takes each new commitment in stride. These days, Dawn stays busy serving on the board for the Fayette Chamber of Commerce, Fayette FACTOR, the Coweta/Fayette YMCA, the Fayette County NAACP’s Executive Board, and the Superintendent Advisory Committee. “Dawn is not only a great leader and role model, but also a wonderful mentor for all who have the great fortune to work very closely with her,” says Becky Smith, Executive Director of Fayette FACTOR.
“Her love for this community and passion to see all working together to make Fayette the best it can be totally aligns with my vision and direction.”
One development that is topping the charts this year for Dawn is the Fayette Visioning Initiative, a community-wide project aimed at creating a vision and plan for the next five years in Fayette County. “I’m tickled pink about the visioning project,” Dawn says. “As a community, we must manage change since it will inevitably happen, and I am so excited about our community’s opportunity to grow.” Many of Dawn’s colleagues affirm that her input and participation in the visioning process is invaluable to the project. “It has been such a blessing to know and work with Dawn, and I am so thankful for her involvement in the Fayette Visioning Initiative planning process,” Viginia Gibbs, CEO and President of the Fayette Chamber of Commerce, comments. “She’s a gifted leader who knows how to truly bring people together, and she has a special ability to find common ground for communicating with others on a very personal, human level. She’s also a courageous leader who is not afraid to ‘speak the truth in love’ and holds others accountable in a respectful and productive way.”
Many Fayette County residents, as well as Dawn’s friends, colleagues and fellow civic organization leaders have seen first-hand the power behind Dawn’s lifelong mission “to love and to serve.” Many of us have seen her, met her, worked alongside her, and perhaps been on the receiving end of her around-the-clock generosity, compassion, wisdom, and leadership. “I know many people in community because I show up,” Dawn states. “I let my voice be heard, and I show up to serve. I just love Fayette County.” And for that love, Fayette County will be forever changed and eternally grateful.