Forging New Paths
By Chris Miller, Communications & Community Investment Officer
Born during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and named after the city at its very epicenter, it seems Selma Theresa Carter was all but destined to be a progressive and inspirational leader.
Theresa, our 54th recipient of the Bert A. Polsky Humanitarian Award, has led a life of success formed by forging new paths at every turn. It's a journey that's taken her from the Deep South to Northeast Ohio, where she's overseen some of the most significant contributions from corporate philanthropy in the area.
Though Theresa was born at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the most significant town in Theresa's upbringing was 600 miles south: Demopolis, Alabama, where Jim Crow laws were enforced right up until the 1970s and where her grandmother Madeline was the first African American to serve white customers at the town's only department store.
Theresa's mother, Clarissa, moved Theresa and her siblings back home to Demopolis when she was just a few years old, making it her true hometown. There, Theresa joined 4-H, but rather than working with animals, she leveraged this experience to develop skills as a public speaker, taking home ribbons for her accomplishments. She also became Demopolis Junior High School's first Black cheerleader, along with being elected "Miss Demopolis Junior High School."
And she continued this path into high school, becoming the first Black student to be elected president of the student council. As class president, Theresa led a fundraising campaign to rent out the Demopolis Community Center for the students' first integrated prom in 1979, taking her own initiative despite the doubt and prohibition from the school principal. Every year since, the tradition of having one prom for all students has continued at Demopolis High School, thanks to the efforts of Theresa and her classmates.
Though Alabama was home, Theresa's connection to Northeast Ohio began during her teenage years, when Theresa and her sisters would spend their summers in Akron visiting their aunt. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in communications and a completed internship at a Selma TV station, Theresa moved to Akron, where she met her sister's friend from church, who helped her move her furniture.
That serendipitous meeting led to marriage for Theresa and Garvin Carter in 1986, followed by the birth of their daughters, Erin and Cesily. Though their marriage did not last, their friendship did, and they continue to celebrate family events and cherish their time as grandparents to their grandson, Devon.
While Theresa initially moved to Akron to find work in broadcasting, a temporary gig from a secretarial pool at the General Tire & Rubber Company blossomed into a fruitful career, including working in corporate communications, editing the company magazine, and eventually managing grant distributions to the 27 communities where General Tire had a presence.
Throughout General Tire's transition to GenCorp and an acquisition by OMNOVA Solutions, which eventually became Synthomer, Theresa's titles included executive director of the GenCorp Foundation and president of the OMNOVA Solutions Foundation. Her current position is president of Synthomer Foundation, which has assets of more than $30 million. Over the last 32 years, Theresa has led the distribution of more than $50 million to charitable groups, arts and culture organizations, and civic projects.
Her work in Northeast Ohio has had a major impact on corporate philanthropy, but she's also dedicated her time to serving on the boards of numerous organizations, including Akron Community Foundation, the Akron Urban League, Akron NAACP, Cleveland Clinic Akron General, and the Summit Metro Parks Board of Park Commissioners, just to name a few.
Theresa has been an integral part of the Sojourner Truth Project Committee, which was responsible for the creation of a statue and legacy plaza dedicated to the abolitionist and civil and women's rights activist near the site of her most famous speech, often referred to as "Ain't I A Woman?"
But while Theresa's been busy making an impact on a large scale, she's also devoted her time to serving at the individual level. Whether she's tutoring children through Project GRAD or mentoring young professionals, Theresa is always willing to make time for others.
For all of these accomplishments and more, Theresa was honored with the Bert A. Polsky Humanitarian Award, which she received on Nov. 6, 2023, in front of more than 450 family members, friends and community leaders.