INDIANAPOLIS — A gifted student while growing up in Danville, Katasha Butler was working toward college with plans to stay close to home.
No one had suggested she look into attending a historically black college or university — until a Danville High School graduate brought up the idea.
He was attending Morehouse, a historically black men’s college in Atlanta, and recommended Butler think about applying to Spelman — also a historically black school, but for women, located less than a mile away in Georgia’s capital city.
“It was the best decision I could have made coming from Danville, which was not racially diverse,” said Butler, a 1994 Danville grad.
During her elementary and middle school years, Butler was the only black student in her grade in the gifted program. She went on to major in chemistry at Spelman, then attended grad school at Butler in Indianapolis, earning her master’s in business administration and doctorate in pharmacy.
Now the coordinator for Medication Use and Regulatory Affairs at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis, Butler has accumulated a long list of professional accomplishments, become involved in a variety of ways in both her hometown and her home city, and started her own event-planning business on the side.
But she still finds time to maintain a philanthropic spirit — not only helping others monetarily but with her time and talents.
One of those efforts originated more than five years ago, when she organized a fair made up of historically black colleges for college-bound students at Danville High.
At the time, she was working at Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System in Danville and as part of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
The idea, she said, grew out of a concern that high school students were not getting enough access to information about the schools and the college application process, financial aid and more.
“My concern is that because I was a gifted student, I had all the resources available to me,” she said. But even then, she still wasn’t aware of the opportunities at historically black colleges.
So, in partnership with the VA and Danville schools, Butler organized East Central Illinois’ first historically black college fair in fall 2013 at Danville High, where representatives from a number of campuses came to fill in prospective students on the application and financial-aid processes and why they ought to consider attending their schools.
Until that time, the nearest event of this type was in Chicago, Butler said.
“We just got a phenomenal response,” she said, adding that the inaugural fair drew students and parents both from Danville and many other downstate school districts.
And it has only continued to grow since, attracting more than 1,000 attendees from all over the region and prompting Butler and organizers to relocate the fair — from the high school's gym to the fieldhouse last year.
This will be Year 6 for the fair, which Butler said will be moved to the spring, making it easier for some college and university representatives to work into their schedules.
Retired school Principal Patricia McKinney Lewis of Savoy has taken local students to the fair each year as part of the Epsilon Epsilon Omega chapter of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, whose mission is to support historically black colleges.
Last year at the international level, the sorority raised $1.6 million in one day to help.
Generally, she said, classes at historically black colleges are smaller, professors are culturally familiar with African American students and students are given more support, partly due to the more intimate campus environment.
At Spelman, Butler said she had a close relationship with a dean, whose children she would babysit for extra money.
“It’s a mentality of no person left behind. It’s very personalized, the attention that you get at these universities and colleges,” she said, adding that it’s equally personal for the professors and administrators to see students succeed. “Once you get that nurturing, you want to thrive with your fellow classmates.”
For Butler’s ongoing commitment to historically black colleges, Lewis nominated her for an award at the chapter’s annual Pink Panache benefit. Butler will be honored during Friday’s gala in Champaign.
“I know how dedicated she has been to providing this type of event to prepare students for college and to make more aware of the historically black colleges and universities,” Lewis said. “It gave students a bull’s-eye view of what college is like. ... And the children come back very knowledgeable of what they need to complete college applications.”
Lewis, a UI graduate who was the first in her family to attend college, said the goal of the chapter’s support of historically black colleges and initiatives like Butler’s is improving the lives and trajectory of students.
“Education is a key to success. And we want all students who are talented and gifted academically to pursue a college degree,” Lewis said.