Essay winners, guests, honorees celebrate annual Dr. King commemoration

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It was an unconventional commemoration to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the theme of love, perseverance and service shined throughout the YMCA of Greater Monmouth County’s first virtual event honoring the late civil rights leader.

For 32 years, the Y has brought together community leaders, students and residents from across Monmouth County to remember King at the annual memorial service. This year, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, guests joined a live-streamed celebration on Jan. 15 from their homes and offices, according to a press release from the YMCA.

The hour-long event was highlighted by two high school students sharing their award-winning essays about King, the presentation of the MLK Human Dignity Award, and remarks from keynote speaker Pastor Kerwin Webb from the Second Baptist Church, Asbury Park.

“After reading their essays, there is a boulder of hope for me,” said MLK Committee Chairman Mike Wright, who offered opening remarks and introduced the speakers and those honored during the event.

Alexandra Lewis, a senior at Red Bank Regional High School, Little Silver, was one of the winners.

Alexandra penned and published a book of poetry last year. In her essay, she wrote about her experience attending a mostly white private school, as well as her experience in a diverse high school, Red Bank Regional.

She wrote, “I use my writing and poetry to help my friends understand how hurtful words can impact someone of color.”

Vaughn Greason, a senior at Freehold Township High School, was also selected as an essay contest winner.

Vaughn’s essay described his observations growing up in a largely white community and experiencing racism as a teen in and outside of school.

Despite learning about a building across from his school that was used in the past as a meeting house for the Ku Klux Klan, Greason did not give up hope, suggesting in his essay that people follow MLK’s writing and wisdom, according to the press release.

Greason and Lewis each received a $1,500 scholarship sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey Natural Gas and PorterPlus Realty, along with a YMCA membership. They were applauded by all on the committee.

“Your voices are so important and please continue to use them forever and ever,” said Gilda Rogers, a community activist and vice president of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation Board.

Keynote speaker Pastor Webb, who serves as president of the Greater Red Bank Area NAACP, said King was more than just the guy “who had a dream.”

Webb said, “Dr. Martin Luther King was more than just a dreamer, more than a prophet, he was a public theologian who spoke to the realities of Christian existence and response … if King were here, how would he grade us, from the words he spoke in the 1960s all the way to 2021. Have we learned, have we grown?”

Webb called on last year’s inaugural recipient of the MLK Human Dignity award, Wayne Boatwright, to present this year’s award to Gwendolyn Love, executive director of Lunch Break.

Quoting King, Boatwright said, “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

And, he continued, “indeed, it is love that has made all the difference. I cannot think of a more deserving person to whom I can pass the torch.”

Love said she was humbled and overwhelmed to receive the Human Dignity Award. She credited her team of employees, board members, volunteers and supporters at Lunch Break with upholding King’s message of non-violence and equality.

“We treat everyone who walks through our doors with dignity, respect and compassion,” she said.

YMCA President and CEO Laurie Goganzer reflected upon the past year and its challenges for the YMCA during the pandemic, according to the press release.

Goganzer described how the organization continued to follow through with its 2020 Togetherhood volunteer initiative – launched at last year’s MLK event – even after the Y was closed during the statewide shutdown.

“Our world changed after our launch, but our commitment to give back never wavered. We are not a Y in the community, we are a Y ‘for’ the community,” Goganzer said as she introduced a video highlighting the host of new programs and services the Y rolled out this past year to support the community during the health crisis.

“Our world can no longer be a place where people are passive to accept things, we must be intentional in our actions and deeply connected to one another through service,” Goganzer added.

Goganzer said the YMCA will continue its Togetherhood program through 2021 and she invited the community to get involved.

“Every month there will be an opportunity to connect with others, volunteer time and to be open to show kindness to those who need it most,” she said.

Pastor Ronald Sparks of Bethel AME in Freehold gave a benediction and Zahmere Johnson performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

In his closing remarks, MLK Committee Chair Wright said, “This memorial event is our call to action and we hope you have been inspired to be part of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

The MLK commemoration may be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhX1N6sKRnE&t=48s