The Young Philanthropists

Written by Joe O’Donnell
Photography by Beau Gustafson

Birmingham has always been known as among the most charitable of cities with strong organizations offering care and services and generous benefactors creating opportunities for healing the wounds of disease, despair, and poverty. Much like the people it serves, philanthropy almost feels like a living thing that has to be nurtured. And like living things, the spirit of giving is renewed generation after generation. Below, we chronicle that sense of renewal by profiling some young people carrying on the giving nature of the city into a new generation of young philanthropists.

Beeland and Grace Nielsen


Beeland and Grace Nielsen are busy, that’s the easiest way to describe. Beeland works for Coca-Cola Bottling Company United. Grace stays home to raise the couple’s young children, two girls and a boy, ages 6, 4, and 2. Grace was born in Mobile, one of five children. Beeland was born here in Birmingham into a tradition of bottling Coca-Cola products (his father is chairman of the bottling company) and philanthropy (his mother, Kate, formerly ran the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham). For these young philanthropists, giving is key. “Very simply put, it’s the right thing to do,” Beeland says. “Emotionally, I am very thankful for the experiences and opportunities that have shaped my life. Many people don’t have those same opportunities. The folks that live in our community drive the success of the community. Any opportunity to enhance their education and experiences benefits us all.”

The United Way and the Community Foundation are major assets to the couple as they decide how to allocate their giving. “They help us understand (or make the allocation decisions on our behalf to) the charitable entities that are most in need and are doing the best work in the community,” Beeland says. “They also help us find the organizations that align with our passion points (education, health and
wellness, etc.).”

The most difficult aspect of giving for the Nielsens is finding the time to do more than financially contribute to causes. “I think that we have done an okay job of squeezing in philanthropy through financial support,” Beeland says. “One thing that we want to do better about is giving our time. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people that give their time. To me, it is far easier to write a check than to carve out and give your time. I also think that the gift of time can be far more impactful for all parties involved because it isn’t a faceless gift.”

Lawrence Sheffield


Amid the sawdust and woodworking equipment Lawrence Sheffield is teaching the art of work. The founder of Magic City Woodworks, Sheffield works out of a building downtown “teaching men the basics of work: showing up on time, having a teachable attitude, and taking pride in who they are in Christ and the work that they are doing for Him.” Working through paid apprenticeships, Magic City Woodworks functions as a quality woodworking shop with a heavy emphasis on hands-on job training.

“We believe that through our program we are helping young men become leaders in Birmingham, their communities, and most importantly their families,” Sheffield says. “We build beautiful pieces in our shop, and through this our team is able to take pride in a job well done. We teach our guys to treat work as a blessing and not as a mundane task. People can support Magic City Woodworks through purchasing our beautiful handmade goods or donating to support our mission.”

Born in Birmingham, Sheffield attended Hoover High School and after graduation he became a firefighter and started a small woodworking business. “In 2011 I became a Christian, and that is when my life truly changed,” he says. “I began to see things in a different light and felt the Lord leading me to walk alongside young men who wanted to work with their hands. Woodworking was always a passion of mine, and through lots of prayer from friends and family, Magic City Woodworks was created.”

Mauri Robinson


Mauri Robinson believes the central importance of a life is the impact it has on others. “A meaningful life is not about being rich, being popular, being highly educated, or being perfect,” he says. “It is about being real, being humble, being strong, and being able to share ourselves and touch the lives of others. I’m fortunate that every organization I’m blessed to be a part of truly embodies those guiding principles.” That statement from Robinson sums up his view of philanthropy and the nonprofit experiences the financial/banking executive has had. He has been a board member of Hands On Birmingham, an organization supporting United Way of Central Alabama, since 2012. Hands On Birmingham’s mission is to connect people with organized and meaningful volunteer opportunities to improve their community.

Robinson is currently the advocacy and policy manager for Growing Kings Inc., a male enrichment program for students in the Birmingham City School System. A native of Birmingham and a graduate of Shades Valley High School, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in business marketing and graduated cum laude from Morehouse College in 2008.

He serves on the board of governors for the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations & Executives and as executive board treasurer for the Jackie Robinson Alumni Association Foundation and vice president for the American Diabetes Association Young Professionals Leadership Council. He is also on the Hands On Birmingham Board, Junior Achievement of Alabama Junior Board, Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve Young Professionals Board, and Rotaract Club of Birmingham, and he is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.

Monique Shorts


Monique Shorts has dedicated her life to serving others. At the age of 14, she created community programming to show youth the importance of serving their community, and at 26 she became the executive director of a nonprofit that engaged, empowered, and inspired children, youth, and families to become leaders in their community.

Now an employee of the American Red Cross as the Armed Forces Division manager in the Southeast and Caribbean region, she helps members of the military, veterans, and their families prepare for, cope with, and respond to the challenges of military service worldwide.

Shorts joined the Red Cross in 2011, starting her career as the recovery planning and assistance coordinator, and then Project SHARE coordinator. In 2014, she was selected as the Service to the Armed Forces director for the Alabama region, taking a virtually unknown program and transforming it into one of the best-known Red Cross programs within the state. That same year, she led the long-term recovery efforts for the April 2014 tornadoes for the American Red Cross and the United Way. Shorts holds both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Bethel University, is a graduate of the 2016 Leadership Shelby County class, and is active with the Rotaract Club of Birmingham and the Young Philanthropists Society of the United Way. She is married to LeMar Shorts, and they have a 5-year-old daughter, Kelsey.



Leave a Reply