Sophia Holley Ellis

Sophia Holley Ellis and the Power of Small Gifts

November 8, 2013 | by Maryanne George

Sophia Holley Ellis (above, right) remembers the hungry homeless men who came to the back door of her family’s home in northwest Detroit during the Great Depression. Although her parents had nine children to feed, her mother always gave the men a slice of bread with peanut butter and something to drink.

Her mother’s generosity taught the young girl the power of small gifts. “She always said ‘even if you only have one slice of bread give half of it away and eat the rest,’” Ellis says.

In 2009, Ellis, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from U-M with the help of scholarships, started her own scholarship fund with a $25,000 gift. The Sophia Holley Ellis Scholarship endowment, which gives priority to LSA students from Detroit with financial need, awarded its first scholarship in the 2011-12 academic year.

Ellis, the first African American to study at LSA’s Biological Station, earned a Bachelor’s Degree in biology and German in 1949, a Master’s Degree in botany in 1950 and a Master’s Degree in German in 1964.  

She went on to teach biology and German in Detroit public schools for 56 years before retiring in 2006. She has received several awards over the years, including the Phyllis Layton Perry Educator of the Year in 2006, awarded by the U.S. State Department.

Although she earned a modest salary as a teacher, she privately funded several students’ college educations before establishing her scholarship. Meeting her first recipient, Antoyrie Green (above, left), in 2011 at LSA’s annual scholarship dinner was one of the high points of her life, she says.

“I can still see the light in Antoyrie’s eyes,” recalls Ellis, who still lives in Detroit. “She told me she was ready to come home from school [due to financial concerns], and then the scholarship office told her that they had some money for her. The thrill of meeting her was more bubbly than champagne.”

Although U-M has generous donors who give millions of dollars, Ellis believes all gifts, no matter how small, make a difference.

“A person who gives a small gift has the same personal thrill as someone like Stephen Ross, who gives millions,” Ellis says. “You have the thrill of touching the present in the moment you give the gift, and you know you touch the future forever.”

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