In 1971, Denise Hollingsworth ’77, was a seventh-grade girl with a vision. She’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee, a city highly segregated and wrought with disadvantage at the time. She yearned for more opportunity, recalling, “I wanted to improve my lot in life, and I wanted to be able to help people. I didn’t know how, but I knew I had extraordinary talent and a big heart.”
Hollingsworth learned of A Better Chance, an organization that matches gifted children from disadvantaged homes into better than average boarding, preparatory, and public schools across the country. She applied and was placed at The Shipley School, some 1,000 miles away from home. She didn’t skip a beat.
Arriving at Shipley with a limited academic background, Hollingsworth dove into her studies, made friends from around the world, and took on numerous leadership roles. She graduated at the top of her class with a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. “I really blossomed at Shipley,” she says. “It completely turned my life around.”
After graduating from law school and establishing a thriving career, Hollingsworth returned to her heart’s calling. As a lawyer, she says, “I felt like I was given a voice for those who are disenfranchised, the most vulnerable populations.” She became Deputy Attorney General of New Jersey, where she focused on public interest work to help victims of crime, litigated in the Office of Professional Standards, and served as Counsel to the State Medical Examiner and NJ State Forensic Laboratory.
Meanwhile, after raising three daughters of her own, Hollingsworth opened her home to over 20 teens as a foster parent. Brought to her by social services, the young people would stay with her for a week, a month, some up to a year. Hollingsworth says, “I saw my home as a place where a child could come and get settled after sustaining a crisis.”
In 2016, Hollingsworth decided to “go for the gusto,” as she puts it, enlisting in the Peace Corps for a two-year stint in Nicaragua. There she taught English and developed curriculum, helping local business people and teachers to improve their English proficiency. Civil unrest and riots led to her evacuation, but the experience piqued her interest in international development, which she plans to return to one day.
As she settles into life back home in New Jersey, Hollingsworth devotes herself to helping those around her. She serves as board member of her local school district, the philanthropic Historic Yorkshire Alliance, where she was President for six years, and the Crossroads Program for at-risk teenagers, where she formerly served as Vice President. She’s the author of a forthcoming book, a substitute Spanish teacher, and an adjunct professor of Criminal Law at Wilmington University. And she’s a proud grandmother to three little boys.
Hollingsworth looks back on the girl from Memphis and her unwavering vision. “I always knew my life had a destiny much bigger than what was around me,” she says. “I always wanted to help somehow, and I never doubted that I’d be able to do it.”