The Lesli Ann Kindness Fund: A Bright Shining Star
Gerardo “Lalo” Mancilla (l) and Aissa Olivera are two of the board members of the Lesli Ann Kindness Fund keeping the spirit of Lesli Ann Jordán-Vazquez alive.
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
For some people, it takes many decades for them to fulfill God’s purpose for their lives. For others, it’s like they are a bright, shiny star that streaks over the horizons of our lives, having a lasting impact on our lives in a very short time. Most of us take decades to make a lasting impact. Lesli Ann Jordán Vazquez was a bright, shining star.
Vazquez was born and raised in Madison and was extremely involved in Madison’s Latino community and beyond. She had moved to Utuado, Puerto Rico in 2019. And then on July 20, 2020, Lesli Ann was killed in a car accident. It may have killed her body, but definitely not her spirit.
“It was a shock,” said Aissa Olivera, a member of the Lesli Ann Kindness Fund. “It was tragic. She was getting ready to start a new chapter in her life. We were sending her good vibes to start that new chapter. And then it tragically ended. She had moved to Puerto Rico to live and work. She had been there for a couple of years. But she was going to start living on her own and get on her own two feet and build her own life there. She was already doing great things over there just like she was doing here. And she was going to build upon those and create her life over there. And it tragically ended.”
Lesli Ann’s mother wanted to set up a lasting memorial and tribute to her daughter. And so she hand-selected eight community members to carry on her legacy through the Lesli Ann Kindness Fund. All of them were impacted by Lesli Ann.
“When we are young, we are very selfish,” Olivera observed. “But she was the opposite of that. She carried this maturity about her because she was able to have this depth to her to recognize each person as themselves and appreciate them for who they were. For that reason, she was wise and mature beyond her years. And I think that’s why losing her so young and not being ab le to see that growth in her is hard. But she taught us so much in those few years. She taught us to appreciate people for who they were. She taught us to bring our energy into spaces where marginalized people are being served. She brought the same energy to everyone. She made everyone feel like they were welcome. She made everyone feel it was okay to be authentic and to be themselves. Those are things that we want everyone to do.”
Gerardo “Lalo” Mancilla, an educator at Edgewood College, knew Leli Ann and is the chair of the Kindness Fund. When he speaks about her, tears come to his eyes. His is another life that has been impacted by Lesli Ann.
“Lesli was like my little sister,” Mancilla said. “I grew up with her. Her mom was the coordinator for the mentor program through Big Brothers Big Sisters in the district. And so I was a Big Brother in that program. I started getting to know the family very closely and the work that her mom was doing as well as Lesli Ann’s commitment to not only that program, but other programs as well. I saw her as my little sister. I grew up with her through school. Not only was I able to work with her through the school district at Cherokee Middle School, but also see her grow and become involved with every organization that you can think of. She had a lot of energy. She was committed. She was selfless. So she participated in the Latino Youth Summit. She wanted to help with anything that was happening in the community. That was the brightness that she brought everywhere she went. Again, this is something that is very personal. This is something we wanted to continue to recognize others who do similar work, who give of themselves tirelessly and not for the recognition. They deserve to be recognized for all of the help that they do.”
In order to carry on Lesli Ann’s legacy, the Kindness Fund will be recognizing people who embody her community spirit. One of those qualities was her ability to make people at ease and welcome.
“Whenever Lesli Ann was in a room, she wanted to make sure that everyone felt welcome,” Mancilla said. “She would look around. She would see who was not engaging. And she would sit down next to them and talk with them, making sure they were participating, making sure they were involved in what the group was doing. The sense of feeling welcome and validated and part of the group is the other thing that goes with it too, making sure you are taking care of others and looking out for your friends, colleagues, and students. She was all of those things. She brought that sparkle and she was always there to lend a helping hand with a smile.”
There are several awards that the Kindness Fund is granting.
“We want to recognize elementary school students who are putting their hearts and souls into helping everyone else, whether it is their classmates, high school students getting ready to go to college through the Kindness Scholarship Fund,” Mancilla emphasized. “And then we want to recognize the business owners who are also doing the same thing, giving of themselves to the community through the Community Sunshine Award.”
The Kindness Fund plans on setting up an endowment fund at the Madison Community Foundation and are looking for those whose lives Lesli Ann touched — and others — to make the fund a reality.
“We need to reach $15,000 in order to have the endowment and give out the dividends as scholarships,” Mancilla said. “The idea is to give out scholarships in perpetuity under her name. Until we get to $15,000, we’re trying to do fundraising and reaching out to family members, friends and colleagues who also want to help and contribute to this idea of sharing and spreading kindness And acknowledging those people who are kind. And so we have established the Lesli Ann Scholarship Fund. People can donate through the Madison Community Foundation.”
Next issue: The 2021 Lesli Ann Kindness Fund recipients