ST. PETERSBURG – The Museum of History located at 535 2nd Ave. N.E., was buzzing with activity Sat., June 14 as the Inaugural Annual Ubuntu Awards presentation got underway. What is Ubuntu you ask? A way of life steeped in rich African culture that led to nearly 30 men being honored for their contributions to a woman who is struggling herself to make a difference.
Loretta Poole and her family have been in the south St. Petersburg community for most of her life. Her new mission in life is to make the community in which she lives a safer place to reside, and with her grassroots effort as founder of Bring Back the Village Experience, Poole hopes to do just that.
Residing on the same block since virtually an infant, Poole has long lived the village experience in not only her personal life, but her professional life as well. Currently employed with the county as a bus driver, she interacts with school children some 180 days out of the year, guiding them and encouraging them to make better decisions. She has also been involved with Operation Par, a substance abuse treatment center, working as a behavioral tech for their adolescent program.
Poole put together the awards ceremony to honor men who have touched her life in some way, whether it is a one-time meeting that inspired her or a long-term relationship. Local officials such as City Councilman Wengay Newton and State Representative Darryl Rouson were honored along with various clergymen and unsung heroes of the community.
“When I came home, homeless, sleeping on the floor of an office building downtown, her parents fed me some meals,” recalled Rouson as he spoke of his substance abuse days some 16 years ago before coming clean. “I’m so grateful for that.”
Duan Johnson, motivational speaker for the Ubuntu awards, met Poole just a few days before the event. Raised by his grandmother and aunt, Johnson can relate to the need for that neighborhood icon that young boys and girls can go to for advice. He said Poole reminds him of his own childhood neighbor who was very influential in his upbringing.
“You work hard and you make sacrifices and sometimes there’s nobody there to recognize you,” said Johnson who spoke of the community as a whole joining together and working toward giving each other a hand up from time-to-time. “Hopefully we can lift some people as we’re climbing and help this village grow and get better.”
Cheryl Underwood spoke to the audience before they sat down to a sumptuous dinner about the meaning behind Ubuntu. She explained it as an African philosophy based on the connection of all human beings. Their motto, “I am because we are,” was recited throughout the evening by speakers and audience members. Its basis in supporting others and sharing what you can ties in with Poole’s idea of bringing back the village and working as a community to help raise the youths of today.
“When two people come into contact with each other no matter how long or short an amount of time, something gets left,” Underwood explained that whether the interaction is good or bad, it is an experience you learn from. “When I come into contact, let me make this a teachable moment, let me plant a seed that maybe tomorrow will sprout encouragement and hope and love.”
Faith-based coordinator for the Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) Trenia Cox was the keynote speaker reciting statistics when it comes to African-American youths, portraying a dismal outlook for their future.
“I think it’s important that we understand we’re in a crisis situation when we look at saving black boys,” proclaimed Cox who reminded the audience African-American boys are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. She went on to point out absenteeism of fathers and having children too early are the main causes of teens and young adults turning to crime. She reminded those gathered to celebrate the spirit of giving back, about the hard times from which the African-American community has come and the ability to improve the future.
“We came here on the boat, this infamous boat ride that brought 20 million slaves to this country, and we came here without resources, but with a will to survive,” Cox said. “Resiliency, that’s what this evening is about.”
And when Poole spoke about her son and nephew and the support she received and continues to receive from others in her quest to do it right as a parent and not be pinged as another single mom statistic, she had to hold back tears.
“When I think of these kids I think about each and every person that crossed my path,” she said praising God and those who’ve protected her along the way. Poole looks to her own village helping her raise her son and hopes that others in the neighborhood and in neighborhoods throughout St. Petersburg will take up the call to get involved and work as a community. “Understand anything you do, anything you say, you are stopping somebody else in their tracks and giving them hope to carry on.”
The Inaugural Annual Ubuntu Awards ended with community heroes receiving certificates that Poole hopes will be hung in a place where the recipient and others can view it every day and know they have blessed somebody.