By Leah Silvieus ‘March 21
This winter, mother and son Jean Wood ’64 MAR and Chris Wood ’90 BA pledged $250,000 to support 10 new annual Social Justice Scholarships at Yale Divinity School. The gift, they say, is the fruit of “several branches” of a family tree dedicated to Christian education and social justice. Their commitment will help cover tuition and living expenses
For the students who receive the scholarships.
The Woods’ inspiration to contribute to these scholarships is just the latest chapter in a story that began even before Jean was born, when her parents, Tom and Doris, met in a small central town. from New York. As a family, Jean says, their lives revolved around the little church they attended. Although neither of his parents attended college, they dedicated their lives to Christian education. Doris taught at the parish school and Tom taught adult classes every Sunday morning in the church kitchen. At night, Jean recalls, she would see her father sitting in his chair, reading the Bible. Although at one time the family lived on the second floor of a rented farmhouse with no indoor plumbing, Jean never felt poor; her parents’ love made her feel like she always had more than enough.
When Jean attended Syracuse University, she met a United Church of Christ chaplain and YDS alumnus who encouraged her to apply to Divinity School. She also met her future husband, Barry, whom she credits with improving her academic performance and helping her gain admission to YDS.
“We just studied,” she recalls with a laugh.
While Jean was at YDS, Barry (now deceased) was at the University at Buffalo Dental School. It was difficult being apart during their engagement, Jean recalls, but she loved her time studying Christian education at YDS with teachers such as Paul Vieth and Randolph Crump Miller. Miller’s daughter, Barbara ’64 MAR, became one of her close friends.
After graduating from YDS, Jean embarked on a storied career at the crossroads of Christian service, social justice and education, while raising her twin sons, Chris and Brian.
Among the many highlights of her career was founding the Coalition of Court Observers after the Attica uprising in 1971. Co-founded with five other women from Church Women United, the organization lobbied for fair treatment of black defendants .
Jean also ran for the Williamsville Central School Board to lobby for a new superintendent after the board fired a former superintendent who supported inclusive schooling. Her time there led her to join the Erie County School Board and the New York State School Boards Association Legislative Network. At a meeting of that network, she responded to a call in a speech by State Assemblyman Jose Serrano, chair of the education committee, for a nationwide student exchange. the state between upstate suburban students and those in its South Bronx district. It was, she recalls, life changing for everyone involved.
Jean has also led volunteer youth tutoring programs and nature camps for Buffalo-area youth and served with Habitat for Humanity in Buffalo as a founding board member and selection committee chair. families.
Growing up in the midst of it all, Chris says, he believed his family was typical. He remembers being surprised that his friends’ mothers didn’t do what Jean did.
“I grew up thinking it was okay to have a mom who did all that stuff,” Chris says. “I now have a better appreciation of the kind of effort, ambition, vision and drive that entails.”
After graduating from Yale in 1990, Chris followed in his father’s footsteps and attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he studied ophthalmology. He also followed his father’s example by volunteering his expertise abroad. While Barry made three trips to Haiti to perform dental work, and Chris brought his medical expertise to Africa and South America.
Chris spent two weeks in Nigeria with US-based Foreign Ophthalmological Care founder Jay McDonald. They have performed many cataract, glaucoma, retina, pediatric and evisceration/enucleation procedures, sometimes with a flashlight in case of a power outage.
With Rotary International, Chris traveled to Guatemala where, alongside construction work, he worked at a Mayan school where he fitted children for glasses and treated basic eye conditions. At an orphanage near Tegucigalpa, Honduras, he worked with One World Surgery, performing many different surgeries for the children and the surrounding community.
“The great thing about ophthalmology is that we have the ability to do a lot of good in a short time with a lot of expertise, but not a lot of expense,” he says.
The Wood family’s dedication to supporting Yale students has also always been a family affair.
Their latest contribution follows the creation in 2017 of Barry and Jean Wood Divinity Scholarship Fund. Barry had the initial idea, says Jean, to support YDS through scholarships. She remembers him saying he wanted to give a big scholarship because it changed his wife’s life and therefore changed his family’s life.
One impetus behind their support for the new Social Justice Scholarships is Jean’s desire to help students who might not otherwise have the resources to attend YDS.
“My father was blue collar; my mother never worked,” says Jean. “I had no money to go to Yale Divinity School.”
Without the full scholarship she received, she would not have been able to attend.
Barbara Sabia, senior director of alumni engagement and development at YDS, says the Woods continue a tradition of social justice at YDS and in the lives of alumni. “We are so fortunate to have the Wood family partnership to expand our commitment to serving students who want to make the world a better place,” Sabia said. “Their generosity will ensure that YDS students of today and tomorrow have the same transformational experience Jean had as a YDS student.”
When Jean called Chris to help support the new Social Justice Fellowships, Chris didn’t hesitate.
“I’m just one branch of that story,” he says. “I’m just a branch.”
The Woods’ work continues at YDS and beyond. More recently, they began working with RefugeeOne, the largest refugee resettlement organization in Chicago, and Viator House of Hospitality, a safe home for young immigrant men seeking asylum in the United States. They hope their donation will enable students who aspire to do social justice work to have the chance to attend YDS.
“I hope for a just society,” says Jean. “This is going to take leadership from the students of Yale Divinity School. And anything I can do to improve that, I’m happy to do. I just know that I was a different person after attending Yale Divinity School.
Leah Silvieus is a poet and writer working at the intersection of religion and literature. She is the author of the poetry collection Arabilis (Sundress Publications) and is co-editor with Lee Herrick of the anthology The World I Leave to You: Asian American Poets on Faith and the Spirit (Orison Books).