PATERSON, NJ - The energy in the room was electrifying. More than 250 people joined in celebration of the Paterson's Youth Council's Dr. Martin Luther King Youth Recognition Breakfast on Monday at the Brownstone House.
The New Jersey Community Development Corporation’s CEO, Bob Guarasci, CEO, introduced the event by proudly saying that the award recipients were "a terrific representation of what Paterson is and what Paterson will be."
Paterson Youth Council adviser, Manny Martinez, described the award recipients as "leaders who will help shape what our tomorrow will look like."
More than 100 youths were nominated for the awards.
Award-winner Damyra Price, 18, who attends Passaic County Tech, volunteers at various organizations in the community. "It makes me feel I did something nice," she said. "I like to see people happy."
Volunteering at CUMAC and Eva's Kitchen helped Andrea Casale, 15, of Paterson School No. 7, win her award. Her eighth-grade teacher, Ann Hazlay, said, "She's a tremendous student. She's a leader. She sets the bar high for other students. She really gives back to the community."
Award winner, Amir Budai, who got accepted to Columbia University at age 15 and spends his free time tutoring students, thanked his parents who taught him, "being extraordinary should be my ordinary."
Other youth award winners were Anny Perez, Paterson School No. 6 and Niara Medley, Passaic County Technical Institute.
Donnie Evans, state-appointed superintendent of Paterson Public Schools gave a personal testimony about growing up on a farm in North Carolina in the 1960s. His parents couldn't afford for him to attend college, but he went on scholarships.
"I remember Dr. King and his world," Evans said. "I dreamed of not working on that farm for the rest of my life. I now own it!" Evans also pointed out that service was on the top of Martin Luther King's list, which is why the community was recognizing these young people for their service.
The youth award recipients reflected Martin Luther King’s ability to reach goals early in life. He graduated high school at age 15 and college at 19. "Their age isn't a barrier to achieve greatness," said Theodore "TJ" Best, Passaic County Freeholder, referring to the honorees.
Lionel King, a fourth-grade teacher at Community Charter School, read a poem he had written in tribute to King, entitled,"What Would Dr. King Say Today." The crowd’s showed its appreciation for the poem with attentive silence during the reading. The poem concluded with the line: "Love's a seed to be planted in the hearts of individuals until it becomes a tree."
Mayor Jeffrey Jones said he was "awe-inspired" by the poem. "If Martin Luther King was here today, he'd say, 'Is that my son speaking for me?'" the mayor said. And speaking from "the King in all of us," Jones encouraged the community to "speak what's on your mind" and "speak from the heart."
While many award winners enjoyed their glory, there were also audience members who were nominated for their good deeds in the community, but didn't win. Regardless, they were there to cheer on their friends and be a part of the event. Kennedy Royal, 12, was nominated for her community service with the Girls Scouts and helping to clean up the Paterson Falls area. "I'm happy I got nominated," she said. "I can be a leader to other people."
Lauren Mann, 12, was another nominee, who helps mentor her peers. "I feel awesome when I help," she said.
"We're excited about things she's been doing," said her mom, Denise. "We hope she continues in high school."
In addition to all the youths who have won awards, The Boys & Girls Club of Paterson and Girl Scouts of Northern Jersey were recognized. Giovanni Restrepo, who works with the Boys & Girls Club of Paterson and won an adult award, has been actively working in Paterson 11 years trying to make a positive impact on the community. With about 800 in the club, Restrepo believes the club has the most diverse staff in the state and was "truly honored" to receive an award.
During the event, two film presentations were shown, "Citizen King" and "Everyone Can Be Great." Bryanna DeVore sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing" during an intermission, while “Body and Soul," a jazz band from Roselle Park High School, performed at the outset.