The Inaugural Whitney M. Young Jr. Leadership Awards Luncheon was held last Thur., Feb 27 at the historic Manhattan Casino, located at 642 22nd St. S., in an effort to recognize outstanding achievements in community and public investment. And it was a hit.
“This event is intentional,” said Pinellas County Urban League President and CEO, Watson Haynes, II speaking of the location in which they chose to hold the event. “It sparks the history of the African-American community.”
The tenant at the bottom catering the soiree was no accident either. Groups and organizations all over the neighborhood have pledged their support for the revitalization efforts of the Midtown area, so Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food, which is quickly becoming a staple, is no exception.
“We want to promote economic development,” continued Haynes who promised Pinelles County Urban League’s (PCUL) support in fostering business in the Midtown area of St. Petersburg. “We’re not afraid to partner with other organizations to get things done on behalf of this community.”
The afternoon moved quickly as it was time to honor the men and woman in the local community who have tirelessly worked, sometimes behind the scenes, to make opportunities possible for all living in the St. Petersburg community.
Whitney M. Young, Jr. was a quiet, unsung hero whose accomplishments were overshadowed by other great leaders of his time. In 1961 he was the national president of the Urban League and was significant in the growth of the organization. Today there are some 94 affiliates, thanks in part to his leadership. Young was also the presidential advisor to President Lyndon Johnson and received the presidential Medal of Freedom in 1968.
Today there are buildings, streets and libraries named after Young, so the Urban League felt it was only fitting to have his legacy represent and honor the members of the community who have made a difference in the lives of all residents.
Students of Academy Prep introduced each honoree with poise. The first to be honored were two local principals, along with Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego, who received awards for their undying devotion to the youth.
“We’re honoring them for the success that they have had with African American students,” said Haynes, “Two principals figured that color didn’t matter, education did.”
Both Lakewood High School Principal Robert Vicari and Boca Ciega Principal Michael Vigue were recognized for their vision and strong bond with their students and the surrounding community. Vicari was instrumental in turning the D school, which was listed in the lowest 5 percent of Florida schools, to an A school and in just four years Lakewood High School is now ranked in the top 25 percent. Vigue of Boca Ciega has been principal for the last three years and in that time has also raised the school grade to an A.
Their ability to see past the traditional barriers to a quality education for all has been well received and both principals were humbled and honored to be in attendance.
“On behalf of our students and staff I want to thank so many people in this room for all they’ve done for our students,” said Lakewood Principal Vicari. “They are worth the investment.”
Bob Devin Jones is the founder and Producing Artistic Director for Studio@620, which is an eclectic home for local art. He accepted his award and spoke of his parents who instilled in him a willingness to learn and to help others.
“I know this is for leadership, but the ability to lead is certainly equal to people willing to be inspired,” he said, his voice cracking as he recited how proud his mother who passed away three years ago and his father who departed just this past year, would be if they could see the way in which St. Petersburg has embraced him.
His reflection on the importance of finding a place where you are loved and appreciated hit home for many in the room.
Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Art O’Hara is the Executive Director for R’Club Child Care, Inc. an afterschool enrichment program and is known for his work with troubled youth in the Juvenile Justice System.
“I grew up in a time where it wasn’t very welcoming if you weren’t white,” O’Hara said. “I’ve seen a lot of changes, but still a long way to go.”
Two local matriarchs were also honored at the Whitney M. Young Jr. Leadership Awards. Lounell Britt, executive director of the James B. Sanderlin Center works as an advocate for those who need her most in the community. Linda Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA), also was honored for her work in helping women and children escape the perils of domestic violence while working as a champion for human rights. Osmundson accepted her award on behalf of all the women and children who couldn’t be in attendance and talked about CASA’s plans to expand with the building of a new shelter that will house 100 beds.
“We’re going to be able to help even more,” she said. “To be able to watch women with a little bit of encouragement, make their lives over and be able to survive and live a new life.”
Master of Ceremonies Carl Lavender rounded out the afternoon with an inspirational video portraying all the good the PCUL does for the community. And as he urged their supporters to break out their checkbooks and give to a good cause, he also discussed the path the PCUL plans to head down in the coming year. With a $300,000 grant from the Allegany Foundation, the PCUL will spread the word about healthcare, the Affordable Care Act in particular.
With the grand idea of traveling from one end of the county to another in place, they intend to knock on doors and visit shopping centers all in an effort to let people know about the health issues they need to address in their lives right now before they need a hospital.
“That’s serious money to help deal with African-American health issues throughout all of Pinellas County,” Lavender said. “So when you see the Urban League bus going up and down the county, it’s going somewhere to talk about healthcare.