Leslie Riley is a teacher for Grand Rapids Public Schools and an Alumni Champion. Her family of active Lakers believes in giving back and supporting others. Riley said encouraging others to give back and connect to Grand Valley is a challenge she wanted to take.
Tell us a little about yourself and your family.
I met my husband, Steve Sanders, while I was pursuing my master’s degree at Grand Valley. We were both living and working up north, and he was sweet enough to drive me down to Allendale for my night classes. We would have dinner with my parents here in Grand Rapids, then attend our classes.
We have two beautiful children, Dane and Victoria, who also chose Grand Valley. They could have gone anywhere; we wanted them to stay in state, and they both received scholarships throughout their four years, including the Grand Finish grant.
Describe your work for Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Grand Rapids Public Schools hired me to teach in the gifted and talented program, then called Spectrum, which was one of my favorite jobs, challenging young students in a cross-curricular, teacher-created curriculum.
Currently, I am teaching in our Shared Time Program, where our teachers are “shared” with non-public schools to offer art, music, physical education, Spanish, and computer instruction to private school students in Kent County and neighboring school districts. I am teaching computer and technology skills at Shawmut Hills School. I also help with all the testing requirements for our second language learners, and the state required tests. I really love working with our great staff and students at Shawmut. Every day brings something new and beautiful.
Why did you decide to attend Grand Valley?
I first remember going to Grand Valley after the WLAV Raft Race, back in the 1970s. Jimmy Buffett was in concert with Cabbage Crik at the Grand Valley dome! We thought we were somewhere out in the cornfields, and I said to myself, “This would be a great place to go to college!” I decided to get my master’s degree at Grand Valley because of its great reputation for educational programs.
Why did your children enroll at GVSU?
We were so happy when both Dane and Victoria decided on Grand Valley. The campus in Allendale is clean and beautiful. The Grand Rapids campus was growing and accessible. Dane lived at home during college and Victoria saved her money while working during high school so that she could live in off-campus apartments and get that college experience (but still be close to home). Grand Valley’s reputation as an outstanding liberal arts college was a positive factor as well.
Both Dane and Victoria had great professors who have given them direction, helped them form independent ways of thinking, and welcomed them into their lives and back to campus after graduating. They now are new alumni.
What is your favorite Grand Valley memory?
Steve and I purchased alumni memberships to the Recreation Center and started taking the children to the pool. Before the kids could swim on their own, they were in the pool every week with their floaties around their arms, swimming and jumping off the diving board. As they got older, we would walk around campus, and eventually they both started working out in the gym there. So, in essence, Dane and Victoria grew up at Grand Valley!
Why did you decide to become an Alumni Champion?
We have been giving to Grand Valley in many forms: participating, donating, and volunteering. Becoming an Alumni Champion, contacting fellow alumni, reaching out and asking others to reconnect their past to our future — that’s a challenge that I want to pursue and make time for. Participating in the Laker Effect campaign and showing that the goals needed for the university to grow — opportunity, achievement and relevance — will impact our future here in Grand Rapids and beyond, that means a lot to me.
You do a lot of volunteering for Grand Valley. Why is that important to you?
As a family, we want to work together for the benefit of others. One of our mantras is, “The more you give, the more you get,” in an unselfish way, that is. We believe in good karma, and that giving back in time, talents, and service to others will return to us in an unexpected but deserved form.
Move-in has been our annual family volunteer activity. Even before Dane and Victoria were first-year students, they helped new college students move into living centers. With wide eyes and strong muscles, both of our children give back because they have been given so much.
What does it mean to you to have your name recognized in Finkelstein Hall?
We can count our blessings and be proud of all our accomplishments because we have been given the gift of education and encouragement. We wanted to continue that through a monetary gift to the new building, and commemorate that gift with our names. That office space will be a symbol of our commitment to education. Steve and I also have our names up on the wall of the Alumni House on the Allendale Campus.
What do you feel is important about Finkelstein Hall?
We like to promote progress. Progress means moving forward and investing in the expansion of the downtown health campus. Both of our children will pursue careers that may involve health sciences in some way or another, and it may even bring them back to the same building where our donation made a difference.
Why do you feel it is important to give back to support Grand Valley?
Perpetuating the ideas of giving, philanthropy, and mindfulness all begin by example. We want to show our children that this is an honest and humble way to live. Supporting Grand Valley each year reflects the reciprocity in our lives. Through giving and receiving, we are part of the flow that creates balance and fullness, and helps us thrive throughout our lives.
What would you say to others to encourage them to give back?
There are many different ways to give — not only monetarily, but through participation and engagement as well. If someone attended Grand Valley and has great memories to share, then get involved, connect, and show your value of lifelong learning.
What opportunity can you open up for students? How can you help them achieve their goals and ensure the relevance in resources that we need today? Remember what it was like during your college years? Make it even better for future college graduates!