VIP Movement Leaders
Eva Blackwell - VIP Cofounder | Executive Director | VIP Autism Ambassador & Advocate
Inspired by her son Branford Smith and his high school classmates, who are on the autism spectrum, in 2009, Eva set out to create an organization that promotes the independence of autistic young adults in their late teens, twenties, and thirties. As the hallmark of autism is communication impairment, Eva envisioned a resource-driven, user-friendly social outlet via multimedia that would enable individuals touched by autism to make invaluable connections. It was clear to Eva that with autism being on the rise, now is the time to integrate the Verge of Independence Project (VIP). Since the launch of VIP, it has received honors, awards, and recognition by General Mills' "Feeding Dreams" program for the promotion of education and health on autism, Community College of Philadelphia for being selected to lead workshops on autism through the college's Diversity Certificate programs, the "Woman of Style and Substance Award" for work and impact in the Philadelphia autism community, and 2019, 2020, and 2021 Philadelphia Autism Project Seed Award for outstanding program proposal and demonstrating engagement efforts with the autism community.
Before becoming the Verge of Independence Project cofounder and steward, Eva was Publicity Manager and stations' official spokesperson at NBC Universal Philadelphia (NBC 10/WCAU) for nearly eight years. While there, she collaborated with her colleagues on NBC's productions of the winter and summer Olympic Games, The National Dog Show, and the 2008 Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate held in Philadelphia. Passionate about community outreach, Eva was commended for outstanding leadership and volunteerism, which she received the G.E. "Ovation" award.
For more than fifteen years, Eva has gained most of her broadcasting experience working in the Greater Philadelphia region. Before joining NBC Universal Philadelphia, she was a television Talk Show Host for Philly Live at WYBE-TV35, a PBS station. Before that, Eva worked as Assistant Public Affairs Director and Public Affairs Programming Producer at WPHL-TV in Philadelphia, PA. Early in Eva's career, she successfully held the positions of Producer, Director, Talk Show Host, Reporter, NPR Correspondent, PBS Associate Producer, and Fund Raising Host at both WHYY TV12 (PBS)/91 F.M. (NPR) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey Network Television WNJS TV23 (PBS)/WNJT FM in Trenton, New Jersey. Throughout her broadcasting career, Eva gained recognition and numerous awards for journalistic excellence - including the highly prestigious "Clarion Award" from The Association for Women in Communications as well as "The Society of Professional Journalists Award" and "National Mental Health Media Award."
Eva is active in professional, community, and civic organizations. She is a member of both the National Association of Black Journalists and its founding Philadelphia Chapter. A former V.P. of Broadcasting for the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, Eva currently serves as a Scholarship Committee member. She is also a Toastmasters International member who has served as V.P. of Public Relations for "Textile Speech Weavers," a local chapter. Eva is also a founding member of the National Black Public Relations Society's Philadelphia Chapter. During her tenure at NBC Universal, Eva was very involved with many affinity groups, carrying out the Communications Officer's role. Also, she served on the Board of Directors of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Brandywine Workshop.
A Philadelphia native, Eva attended schools in the Tri-State area, earning her M.A. in Strategic Communication and Leadership from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, and her B.S. in Organizational Leadership/Professional Communication from Philadelphia University. Also, a graduate and member of the Philadelphia FBI Community Partnership Program, Eva takes pride and joy in mentoring the next generation of leaders and innovators. With her passion for communication and education, Eva currently serves three colleges, teaching Communication, Journalism, and Multimedia Studies. Since 2017, Eva has served as Faculty Advisor of the award-winning student-run college newspaper The Vanguard. She has developed a curriculum that fosters the social and communicational deficiencies inherent in people with autism and pervasive developmental disorders used in the workshops that she curates.
Branford Smith - VIP Cofounder | VIP Autism Ambassador | Autism Self-Advocate
Branford, an autistic young adult is both co-founder of the Verge of Independence Project
and a self-advocate. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School, in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, Branford has come to view himself being autistic as a difference and not
a disability. In his role as VIP Autism Ambassador, he continues to take steps toward his independence. For instance, his right to vote since the age of 18. He delights in
traversing on his own in the community that he lives. And, with Branford’s love for
baking cookies, he’s currently in an internship and vocational program, where his focus
is on developing his interpersonal communication skills while pursuing one of his goals
of becoming a professional baker. An avid bowler, Branford also enjoys swimming and
dining out with friends and family. Branford is finalizing his highly anticipated book titled "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake: Living Autistic In a Big City."
Melissa Lushington - VIP Blogger, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake blog series
powered by Verge of Independence Project
Collegiate Award-winning Journalist | VIP Autism Ambassador | Autism Self-Advocate
Melissa is currently a student at Community College of Philadelphia, where she is studying communication. She desires to someday be a full-time print journalist. Thrilled that she landed an internship with the Verge of Independence Project, she shares her story of the paths she has taken to make her dream of becoming a journalist her reality.
"It all started back in the earlier days of my youth. My mom always says to this day that when I was a little girl. I watched educational tv programs such as Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow. From watching those programs, I was able to learn about letters of the alphabet, I learned about vowels and sounding out words, and I learned about how words are created and read in sentences. I learned to read my very first book, which was a children’s Dr. Seuss called Hop on Pop. This natural learned ability to read grew into a love of reading, which carried me into grade school. When I first started grade school, I was already reading at a first-grade reading level. Once I started doing writing at an upper-grade level, it grew into another skill that I became good at, and I grew a love for it as well. You know as a child; I always had this nature of imagination. Having an imagination always gave me the outlet to escape from reality for a while and made the world not as scary or difficult anymore. When I was four years old, that’s when I discovered another outlet for my escape from reality, and for my imagination to advance on a different level, that outlet was theater.
At four years old in the year 2000, I went to a preschool known as Formative Years where I witnessed my brother perform in his preschool production of the children’s book Swimmy. From opening monologue to curtain call, I was entranced into a mystical world that I fell in love with instantly. It was from that day that I knew, I had been bitten by the theater bug. So much, that I did four years of Drama Club when I was in high school!
I’m thankful to say that in the year 2013, I was able to combine the best of both worlds when a guidance counselor I had in high school introduced me to an internship that lasted for a year at the Walnut Street Theater known as Seeing the Stage Through Our Eyes. This internship gave me my very first experience as a print journalist when I attended four final dress rehearsals of Broadway productions, and write feature articles for all of them. The best two articles for each show received publication in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and on February 16, 2014, I was one of the lucky two that received publication in the Philadelphia Inquirer for the Broadway Play Other Desert Cities. That publication in the inquirer was the very first publication I ever received as a writer and as a journalist, and from that very moment, I knew I wanted to be a journalist because I wanted to write about things that provided original thought and well-crafted creativity. I wanted to write things that would inspire people and encourage them to think differently and look at things differently in a good way. So, in my senior year of high school, I signed up for an internship at KYW Newsradio called KYW Newsstudies for several weeks. I did a project that involved doing a news report on something that happened at my school. My news report was about the changes made at Delaware Valley Charter High School after the tragic loss of a student had taken place earlier in the school year. The news report was broadcasted live on the KYW Radio Station on December 1, 2014.
Finally in 2015, after graduating from high school, I started attending a community college known as Community College of Philadelphia where I majored in Communications and had a personal goal to participate in a magazine or newsletter outlet that would allow me to write work for them and have it published. It wasn’t always easy finding an opportunity that would stick, but I was finally able to catch a lucky break when I signed up for Professor Eva Blackwell’s class for the course Writing for Mass Media. Thanks to Professor Blackwell who works with the school newspaper known as The Student Vanguard, I was able to write many pieces of work in which some have been chosen for publication in The Student Vanguard. By the end of the semester, not only did I earn an A for the course, but Professor Blackwell offered me the position of contributing writer for The Student Vanguard Newspaper and she even offered me an internship opportunity to write blogs for the Verge of Independence Project. After all, I wasn’t just a good writer, but in many small subtle ways, I’m also autistic.
Anyway, that’s the story of how I ended up here, blogging this website speaking to all of you who are reading this. I love theater, I love writing, I love journalism, I love communicating with people and making friends, but I also love making a positive difference in people’s lives. I hope that after a year’s worth of contributions to this project, you will all be inspired to know that not only are you not alone, you are also not being ignored. Someone acknowledges what you’re going through and not only do they understand you, but they also want to go out of their way to help you. The Verge of Independence Project is here to help you, and I’m here to inspire you. I want to inspire you to believe in yourself and to believe that what you have does not and should not discourage and cripple you, but rather make you stronger, wiser, and more creative. That’s my info about myself, I’ll talk to you all later. Thank you."
Warren Trent, Jackson, MS
Tevis Weir, Philadelphia, PA
Vernon A. McInnis, Esq., Philadelphia, PA
Gabrielle Green-Smith, Glassboro, NJ - Content Manager
Keon Hayes, Philadelphia, PA - Assistant Content Manager
George Goetschel, Chicago, IL
Dr. Myrna Shure, Philadelphia, PA