PATERSON, NJ - Martin Luther King once said: "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”
That’s not exactly an approach taken by many American teenagers. But the 35 members of the Paterson Youth Council may not be typical teenagers. Mature, curious, hard-working and community-minded, they tackle issues like education reform, civil rights, violence prevention and the environment.
On January 17, more than 200 people gathered the Youth Council’s Fifth Annual Martin Luther King Youth Recognition Awards Brunch. The student winners of the awards were Alexa Sena, an 8th grader at School No. 7; Rameia Choudhury, a 7th grader at School No.2; Michael Fotos, an 11th grader at PANTHER Academy; and Kaylanna Lee Franklin, an 11th grader at PANTHER Academy.
Fotos, 16, is active in environmental issues, but thinks his tutoring is his biggest contribution to the community. ”This is the best way to give back to my community and my friends,’’ he said. “As to people who don’t want to be helped, you just have to keep trying, because if you don’t get through to them, you can’t help them.”
Fotos, who plans a career in environmental engineering, entertained the crowd with his description of the award. “This made me realize that my winnings are not a lottery, that I actually deserve this!” Fotos said.
Franklin, 16, was recognized for creating a social media club on Facebook called, “Universal Mind.” She believes that even if the youth sometime feel “they don’t have a voice, they should know most pressing issues that affect them - about guns, safety, health care reform, immigration, etc…”
Choudhury, 13, the youngest winner, said she’s not focused on awards. “I do the community work because I want to help eliminate poverty and help the environment,” she said. What concerns her most, she said, is that people take technology for granted without realizing how much it hurts environment.
The Youth Council, which is organized through the New Jersey Community Corporation (NJCDC), asks teachers and mentors to recommend nominees for the recognition awards.
David Gelman, Education Program coordinator for PYC, said he’s excited to work with such driven and inquisitive kids. “With them you get to do something different every day,” he said.
Gelman said he admires the youths’ infectious enthusiasm, stressing how important is their perspective is to the Community Development Corporation. “They are the ones who know better about issues that affect them,” he said.
Lytif Parsons, 16, President at the Paterson’s Youth Council, noted that most of the kids “come from a rough past.’’
“There is a lot of violence in Paterson,’’ Parson said. “My mom was murdered in 2004. We have decided to come together, because enough is enough! We have come a long way in voicing our opinions.”
In June of 2010, the Youth Council members were invited to Washington where they spoke with the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and expressed their fears for the safety and future of children in Paterson. The Youth Council members meet among themselves weekly and once a month they have dinner with members of the school board and city council to exchange ideas about issues that affect the city’s youth.
“Our vision is to be out there and change as many lives as we can in a city of Paterson,” shared Ronda Darwood, 17, a Youth Council member from the International High School.
In addition to the students, two adults - Nicholas Weimmer, a biology teacher at Eastside High School, and Vanessa Paynter, executive director of the Paterson YMCA – won awards along with one organization, the Paterson Community Schools Corps.
The Community School Corps helped 800 Paterson families in its service that included workshops in literacy, nutrition, self-defense, domestic violence and helping parents to understand financial aid and college application process, according to Barry Ford, a program manager with the organization.
Elected officials paid tribute to the city’s grassroots movement. “It’s easy to stand up in easy times,” said Rep.Bill Pascrell Jr., a former Paterson mayor. He praised the youths and adults who stood up for the city during “times of crisis.”
In recognition of the Youth Council’s work, Mayor Jeffrey Jones presented an award to Bob Guarasci, the chief executive officer of NJCDC. The nonprofit agency says its mission is to create opportunities and transform lives.
That seems to be happening for the Youth Council members and award winners who enjoyed the brunch. While they ate, a slide show displayed pictures of Youth Council activities and featured quotations, including this one: “You only need a heart full of love…to serve.”
What other words could best epitomize the atmosphere at the Dr. King recognition awards than his own?