Lander University graduate Beth Summer-Strait of Jonesville found her calling in behavioral health when she began working as a volunteer in the Union County Mental Health Association in 1995. Because of her achievements in that field, she has received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian award.
After graduating from Lander in 1985 with a degree in political science, she went on to earn a master's degree from the University of South Carolina.
She worked in marketing and public relations and thought about going into journalism, but was drawn to behavioral health. She worked for the Union County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission for seven years and created programs that won national and local recognition.
In 2007, she became executive director and CEO of PACE, a nonprofit mental wellness center in Spartanburg. She held the same position for Mental Health America of the Piedmont when it was a separate agency.
She was named a "Woman of Achievement" in 2006 by the Business and Professional Women's Club, and was presented the South Carolina Mental Health America "Public Policy Award" for her work on behalf of individuals with mental illness.
Summer-Strait said advocacy is her niche. "I have worked very hard to try to erase the stigma of mental illness."
She was nominated for the Order of the Palmetto by Rep. Rita Allison (R-Dist. 36, Spartanburg), who read a letter from Gov. Mark Sanford at the award presentation. In the letter, Sanford stated, "Your entire life and career have been marked by a level of achievement that brings enormous credit to our state."
Summer-Strait's husband, Robert, is the deputy director and treatment director for the Cherokee County Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Gaffney. She said his grandmother, Margaret Ferguson Strait, was a member of Lander's graduating class of 1921.
The Straits are the parents of a six-year-old son, Daniel, and the family lives in a 150-year-old farmhouse in Union County.
Summer-Strait considers Lander a launching pad to her career. "The university's faculty provided me with opportunities to go as far as I could go." She also thanked members of her family for their support and for teaching her empathy and compassion for others.