In celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, vision, and commitment to public service and civil rights, NJCDC's Paterson Youth Council (PYC) and AmeriCorps program each hosted an event on Monday, January 20—Martin Luther King Day. The PYC held its 14th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Youth Recognition Awards Breakfast, while our AmeriCorps program held a free resource fair for our neighborhood.

At the Dr. Martin Luther King Youth Recognition Awards Breakfast, held at The Brownstone, the PYC—a group of 30 Paterson teens taking part in a year-long leadership development program facilitated by NJCDC—bestowed the MLK Youth Recognition Awards upon four youth, one adult, one elected official, and one youth-serving organization. The PYC selected the award winners after receiving numerous nominations from schools, organizations, and Paterson residents. The award recipients were selected for their dedication to making Paterson a better place through their extraordinary community service activities.

Nearly 200 people attended the Breakfast to celebrate the award winners and honor Dr. King's legacy, including Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr., Mayor Andre Sayegh, Senator Nellie Pou, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, Police Director Jerry Speziale, Economic Development Director Mike Powell, Passaic County Clerk Danielle Ireland Imhof, Freeholder Terry Duffy, Paterson Publics Schools' Sandra Diodonet and Richard Matthews, and NJCDC board members Bill Pascrell III and Carline Morrison, among many others.

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Following opening remarks by NJCDC CEO Bob Guarasci and a short video on Dr. King, PYC advisors Eddie Gonzalez and David Gelman introduced themselves to the crowd. Next, PYC President Mohammed Uddin described what the Youth Council does, while VP Emel Rodriguez discussed their process of selecting the winners, including how difficult it was since young people seem to be more dedicated and involved every year.

Paterson Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr. then spoke to the crowd, including his recollection of Dr. King's visit to the Silk City just days before his assassination. Congressman Pascrell was followed by Mayor Andre Sayegh, who spoke about the history of Martin Luther King Day, as well as the importance of celebrating not just the glory, but also the story of Dr. King.

After breakfast and a rousing rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" led by Deanna DeVore, the PYC members announced the award winners. Afterwards, Eddie Gonzalez surprised Bob Guarasci with a special plaque from past and present NJCDC staff members, thanking Bob for dedicating his life to building a better and brighter Paterson. Deanna and Bob then led the crowd in an energetic performance of what some call Paterson's anthem – "Lean On Me."

Meanwhile, in the morning and afternoon, our AmeriCorps members honored Dr. King's legacy by holding a free clothing and resource fair benefiting over 55 Paterson families in need. Families "shopped" for food and clothing and also learned more about the resources offered by NJCDC and our partners.

The 2020 MLK Youth Recognition Award recipients are:

Adrian Mejia, 7th Grade, School 10

Adrian maintains a 3.8 GPA and is the proud President of the National Junior Honor Society. Some of Adrian's many accomplishments include volunteering his time with senior adults from the Paterson Adult Center, assisting with raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and St. Jude's Hospital, and participating in events like Read across America and Career Day. According to his nominator Ms. Karen Patterson, "Adrian's contribution to the legacy of Dr. King is evident daily, because intelligence plus character is the goal of true education. Being a good citizen, wearing his school uniform daily, and showing acts of kindness are essential to Adrian. He won't settle for anything less than outstanding, and his leadership skills are exemplary."

Raheem Ashmeade, 8th Grade, School 6 – The Senator Frank R. Lautenberg School

Raheem is Vice President of the Student Government Association and a member of the National Junior Honor Society. He is an honor roll student and was nominated as Student of the Month. Some of his extracurricular activities include managing and running the school store, coordinating the Halloween Trunk or Treat for grades Kindergarten through 2nd, managing school dances, and reading to Pre-K students at Cavalry Baptist Pre-School. According to his nominator Ms. Etta Jones, "whenever there is an extracurricular activity at school, Raheem is there. He has continued to represent Dr. King's legacy by his leadership abilities. Raheem is aware of current events and social injustices, and like Dr. King, uses a peaceful approach to resolve conflict."

Isabela Gonzalez, 10th Grade, International High School

Isabela maintains a 4.5 GPA and has made a significant impact on the school community in just a year and a half. Isabela held a Toy Drive for the Tomorrows Children Fund, an organization that supports families of children with cancer and blood disorders. Additionally, she volunteered at two summer camps that both help young cancer patients, and started an Interact Club at International to get other students involved in community service. Isabela tutors her peers at the Great Falls Teen Center, where she is the program's Youth Ambassador. She also worked with the Paterson Board of Education last year to help revise their Code of Conduct, and encourages other students at her school to join the Female Empowerment Club. She volunteered at the Paterson Science Fair, and joined the political enrichment program to help sharpen her advocacy skills. According to her nominator Ms. Cassandra Carleton, "Isabela's contributions represent Dr. King because she is always encouraging people to stay peaceful, but to fight for what they believe in. Her passion to help people has led her to want to become the President of the United States to form a more unified America. Isabela also wants to be an immigration lawyer to help families that are being separated, as well as a social worker to help children find happy homes."

Gianfranco Romani, 12th Grade, JFK STEM Academy

Gianfranco maintains a 4.4 GPA as the Academy's valedictorian. He is a member of the Society of Minority Engineers, the JFK Robotics and College Prep Team, the 21st Century Compete for Life Program, the William Paterson Enrichment Program, the National Honor Society, and the FDU Technical Enrichment and Outreach Program. Additionally, Gianfranco completed the Paterson Police Department's Anti-Violence Youth Program, the AT&T Cyber and Science program at Felician University, the Center for Community Planning's City Planning Program at Passaic County Community College, and much more. To date, Gianfranco has already been accepted into three colleges. According to his nominator Mr. Gilman Choudhury, "Gianfranco is a student leader, passionate community servant, and all-around noble individual. With his own hands he has helped build school playgrounds, paint murals, collect toys, and support food drives for the community, while completing over 300 hours of community service. He loves this city and goes above and beyond to support it. Students like Gianfranco are the reason why the future for Paterson is bright."

William "Billy" Rodriguez, City of Paterson

William "Billy" Rodriguez is a lifelong resident of Paterson, husband to Catherine Rodriguez, and father to four wonderful children – Ashley, Yaz'min, Ava, and Steven. Mr. Rodriguez has been employed by the City of Paterson for over 23 years. He has moved up the ranks in the Department of Public Works and is now the Director of DPW. Mr. Rodriguez is a member of the New Jersey Parks & Recreation Association, and he also oversees the creation and maintenance of the City's parks and fields on which our youth play every day. He has been an instrumental partner in the development of many playgrounds and parks built in this city, including the newly rehabilitated Grace Buckley Park on Chamberlain Avenue—which now has a new turf field and can be used for multiple sports.

Outside of his DPW role, for the past 20 years and counting he has dedicated his time to Paterson's youth as a volunteer coach with youth baseball and softball leagues. Currently, he is a coach of the Divas team of the Paterson Girls Athletic Softball League.

Senator Nellie Pou, New Jersey Legislature

Senator Nellie Pou is a champion for the people she represents in New Jersey's 35th Legislative District, which includes Paterson. She first won election to the State Legislature in November 1997 as a member of the General Assembly, where she served for a period of 14 years (1997-2012). Senator Pou was first elected to the State Senate in 2011 and re-elected in 2013 and 2017. She holds the dual distinctions of being the first woman AND the first Latina to represent the 35th District in the State Legislature. She is a veteran of the City of Paterson's municipal administration, having served in various capacities for over three decades, including as Director of Human Resources.

Almost 15 years ago, Senator Pou provided invaluable assistance to NJCDC in opening Independence House, a residential program for youth aging out of foster care. And in her work on the Senate Higher Education Committee, she has fought for policies to help young Patersonians go to college. During her legislative career, she has sponsored scores of bills that benefit young people. She has also emerged as a leader in juvenile justice reforms.

Paterson Music Project

PMP launched its first site at the Community Charter School of Paterson, or CCSP, in January 2013 with 32 second graders and has since added a new class of students each year. Since its inception, PMP has partnered with the Paterson Public Schools to open the Paterson Public School 1 and 26 sites, as well as the CCSP 21st Century Community Learning Center Program to start a winds and brass middle school program. This year, PMP will be partnering with the Rosa Parks Performing Arts High School in Paterson to host the PMP Saturday Program which includes large ensemble rehearsal, Community Choir, and private lessons. There are now over 200 students in the program across the city of Paterson in grades 1-8.


Reprinted with permission from NJCDC