SUMMIT, NJ - Celebrating of the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Summit Area YMCA offered myriad opportunities for the community to join together in a day of service on January 16, enabling Summit residents and their neighbors to give back to those in need and to learn more about diversity and inclusion.

Demonstrating the very core values that defined Dr. King -- honesty, compassion, respect, and selfless service -- the Summit-based non-profit organization ran a Winter Coat Drive to support individuals in need throughout Union County; an annual lunch bag making project named “A Child’s Helping Hand” for Bridges Outreach, Inc. to provide meals to the homeless; as well as a Teen Diversity Panel designed to demystify the thoughts and opinions of teenagers regarding the current social, political and economic climate they live in.

At the heart of Dr. King’s character were not only his leadership skills, but also his dream of a united, multi-ethic country and society that celebrated diversity, equality, compassion, tolerance, and nonviolence. On his birthday, as a part of the Shaping Summit Together citywide 'Day of Service' initiative, children and families of all races and ethnicities came together at The Learning Circle YMCA, a branch of the Summit Area YMCA, and made sandwiches, packed snacks, drinks, and more into decorated lunch bags to send to Bridges Outreach, Inc. The initiative helped children learn the importance of helping those in need and the impact they can make in their communities.

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With the help of dozens of volunteers and kids in the child care center -- ranging from toddlers to school age children --  the service project completed making 754 bagged lunches, surpassing 2016 numbers by nearly 40 percent.

The Winter Coat Drive collected more than 200 winter coats in support of Society of Saint Paul de Vincent by gathering gently-used outerwear for men, women, and children in need throughout Union County. Teens then volunteered to help sort and bag all the donated coats at The Y, providing a sense of meaningful action and appreciation in helping others.

Lastly, The Y conducted its final Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in the Summit YMCA auditorium, spotlighting a diverse teen panel that answered questions from a moderator and from the audience regarding their views on growing up in an ever-changing and diverse world.

The event began with a series of activities designed to be interactive and educational for teens and adults alike. Stereotypes of teens were explored, asking participants what they thought of a particular teen based on their photograph, and arts and crafts from different countries including China, Africa, and more were also offered so that participants could learn more about other cultures around the world.

The Teen Diversity Panel then began with the moderator asking questions such as how the teen panel felt about the future with the new President-elect Trump soon taking the oath of office, how they felt regarding the current status of racial equality in the United States, as well as how social media affected their way of communication and understanding the world they live in. The teen panel’s voices provided intelligent, valid, and honest opinions on each topic, and meaningful discussion took place as both teens and adults in the audience asked questions to better understand the viewpoints of an often misunderstood generation.

A partial transcript of audience questions and panel responses included:

Audience Adult: “You mentioned that hate and pettiness seems more prevalent these days. Where do you think the culture of hate is coming from? I remember a time when in households, we were teaching children to be kind to others, to be respectful of others and their elders. Where do you think this permission to be mean comes from? Do you think it comes from celebrities, social media, reality TV? Where do we start collectively saying that this is not okay, and that we have to unite, respect and be good to one another? What do you think, in your opinion, is a solution to this?”

Nkozi A.:We should start with youth mixing in with diverse social groups and communities. I used to live in Brooklyn, but then my mom brought me to New Jersey and Summit. She wanted me to have friends that were different from me. I can say that I have a lot of friends of different races now from different places, and some of my friends from places like Brooklyn can’t necessarily say that. It’s important to branch out and learn from others who are different from you, and by doing that I think is a good start in moving forward collectively towards a better tomorrow.”

Moderator: “How can we be more united?”      

Mariam C.: “I think just listening to each other and being more empathetic is the key. We can all be a little self-centered even if we don’t mean to be, but if we can imagine being in another person’s shoes, or try to understand others, be open to new experiences, then we can all learn more about things that are outside of ourselves and be more educated when forming opinions about others.”

Audience Teen (13 years old): In a country where information is so easily accessed, shouldn’t we be able to choose the information that we read and totally disregard information or news that contrasts our world views, or makes us uncomfortable, or should we take the time to read things that make us uncomfortable or totally on the other side of the spectrum even though we might not care for it?

Tara M.: “I think that being open and able to learn about different opinions and experiences are important. The other side of the spectrum might not be what we want to know, but it might be what we need to know.”

Audience Teen (13 years old): “In states and areas where racism is so deeply rooted in their culture and heritage, how do you deal with the racism that is so abundant, not only in the public but also in the government, how do you deal with systemic racism?”

Tara M:I feel like a lot of that systemic racism, as our generation grows up and becomes adults and is able to go into government positions and actually have a say into what is going on, a lot of that is going to shift. But right now, I feel like awareness and open conversation is the best thing we can do right now.”

The Teen Diversity Panel observed Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by providing a meaningful discussion and, therefore. a genuine and greater understanding of those who may be viewed as 'different' based on who they are and their life experiences. Teen Diversity Panelists are also participants in the Summit Area YMCA's 'Achiever’s Program', an initiative that provides free college preparation, tutoring, career workshops, college tours and more.