BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — The Black History Month program held at the Thomas “Jet” Jackson Recreation Center Friday, Feb. 22 went off without a hitch. Parents packed in for an evening of entertainment, fine dining, and of course, a history lesson.
In its fifth year, the Black History Month program featured children stepping up to the microphone to recite short biographies or quotes by historical figures and those who are currently making history. The usual suspects made their yearly appearances such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, George Washington Carver and Rosa Parks, but in a refreshing turn of events, the night saw NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, almanac author, surveyor, naturalist and farmer Benjamin Banneker and legendary basketball player Bill Russell.
Recreation center Supervisor I Barbara Walton and other staff members worked in concert to bring smiles to the parents’ faces. Walton said she was a withdrawn and shy child, so whenever she spots those traits in one of her charges, she works hard at bringing them out of their cocoon.
“I’m going to put them into dancing, singing, or whatever talent they have so we can get the shyness out of them.”
And although she once contemplated stopping the black history event, she could not bear to disappoint the kids or their parents.
“They get excited. That shyness and fearfulness leaves,” Walton said. “I see it brings so much joy to the children as well as the staff and myself.”
Participants in the Black History Month program attend the before and after school program at the recreation center. Children ages 5-11 are picked up from seven different schools and are transported back to the center. They participate in a number of different activities and receive help with homework.
During the school year, there can be anywhere from 50 to 60 children; however, during the summer that number swells to more than 150 youngsters. Walton said there is no capacity because, “If we get more children, we just hire more staff.”
A grant from the Juvenile Welfare Board funds the middle school program, which allows low-income families the benefit of before and aftercare with two education specialists to help with homework, participation in sports and summer camp when school is out.
Danah Watkins, teen supervisor 1, grew up in the program at the very same recreation center from play camp to teen camp and came back as a volunteer once she aged out.
“After that, I knew I wanted to be a teen supervisor. I love the teens; I love all the activities. I love planning field trips; I love participating in the field trips,” said the 24-year-old. “I just want the kids to have that same experience I had.”
Youth Development Worker Jerald Reedy, who is over the teen program, cooked up baked, barbeque and stewed chicken, yellow rice, string beans, cornbread and dessert. Both parents and children couldn’t wait to get ahold of his mouthwatering fare.
This year, parents were treated to a demonstration by Midtown Miracles, a martial arts program with classes held at the Thomas “Jet” Jackson and Lake Vista Recreation Centers.
Grand Master Soke Bryant K. Harrell and his wife Master Sensei Leotte-Keiva Harrell head up the program started by Police Chief Anthony Holloway. Originally created for at-risk children, the chief takes drug money seized from criminals and put it toward positive things in the community.
“We have a lot of kids in foster care, abused children, a lot of kids are sent here for therapy, kids that were in gangs. A lot of behavior issues,” said Leotte-Keiva Harrell.
There are two age groups the Harrells work with: children from ages 4-15 and ages 16 to adults.
“We teach real-world technique. We teach for competition, and we teach for real life, especially the adults,” she said, adding that they run the gamut of martial arts from karate to kung fu to aikido, self-defense techniques and everything in between.
Next year’s show promises to be even more spectacular. Even though it’s a year away, mark your calendars for the last Friday in Feb. so that you won’t miss seeing history come alive through the eyes of children.