BY PUNEET SANDHU, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Councilman Wengay Newton stopped by the Enoch Davis Center to speak to the Thaise Educational and Exposure Tours (TEET) students. His speech was motivational as he urged the students to stay in school, stay out of trouble and make good decisions for a better life.
Newton started off by telling the kids that he was born and raised here in St. Petersburg, not too far from the recreation center. His father left when he was eight years old and his mother had to raise nine children by herself with the help of food stamps, welfare and free lunch.
“So it was a lot of meager things that we didn’t have, but we did have each other. How many people saw that movie ‘The Help,’ he asked room. “Well that’s pretty much what my mom did; she cooked and cleaned for white people and their kids. Having an eighth-grade education and so many kids, it was really tough for her to get any other job.”
Despite a hectic family life, Newton said he took advantage of every opportunity he was offered. His father was absent most of his life and his elder brothers were often in jail. Newton became a father at 15 years old, but he was determined “not to let my son come up the way I came up.” He made sure he was always working to provide opportunities for his son and said that working jobs saved him from falling into a life of crime.
“I love speaking to young people because I know what’s out there,” Newton said. “I know where the traps are at, I’ve been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and the hat. It ain’t nothing new.”
His advice touched on everything from school, to friendships, to avoiding conflict.
For one, he told the students present to be careful what they post on social media sites such as Facebook. “In the city of St. Petersburg, when you’re looking for a job, the first thing that the human resource department does is Google you,” Newton said. “They want to see your Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn and Instagram because you represent them, so they wanna see what you’ve put up there. It will come back to haunt you.”
He urged younger students not to think of their freshman year in high school as a throwaway year of no importance. “While you’re in 12th grade applying to get into college, the colleges are looking at your ninth, 10th and 11th grade GPAs. So if you mess up ninth grade, that’s going to mess up that GPA. Freshman year is an important year.”
Students, he said, should be careful not to waste their time in school with meaningless activities. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Everybody in this room gets 24 hours. Time is the most valuable commodity that you have. You can get anything back in this world, except time. So be shrewd with your time.”
He also warned students not to be afraid to ask for help in any areas they struggle with. “Some people never want to ask for help because they think, ‘I know it all and if I ask somebody for help, I’m going to look stupid.’ Well, you’re in school to learn, that’s why you’re there. If you don’t learn something, then you’re stupid. The only dumb question is the one you didn’t ask.”
One subject Newton spoke heavily on was juvenile arrests. He said that when he was growing up, he and his friends did the same things as children do today, but they weren’t arrested for juvenile crimes the way today’s children are.
“It’s all about cash for kids,” Newton said, saying that the government makes money off children’s mistakes. He told the students present not to fall into that system and allow officials to profit off them.
“The state of Florida’s 2014 budget was $185 million for juvenile jail beds,” Newton said. “They already have the money approved in the budget, so it’s not about if you’re coming, it’s when—they know you’re coming. For this year, the 2015 budget is $196 million, so they’re expecting more kids. You’re worth about $196 million to them. If you graduate and go off to college and get a good job, then they don’t make money. See how that works? So they’re rooting for you to get in trouble.”
The system, he said, is self-perpetuating. “Last year, we arrested 2,400 juveniles from 11 to 17 years old and you fall right in that age demographic. The hardest part is trying to stay out of the system, because if you go out there and get a record for doing something stupid, that record will follow you for the rest of your life.”
He let the kids know that when they get arrested, they won’t be able to find a decent job because employers do background checks.
“You can’t go to the army, and you can’t get scholarships. So you can’t work, can’t go to college, can’t go to the military. Now what are you going to do? All that’s left is hanging around corners, robbing people. Which means more jail and they make more money. That’s the way it works. But you can change that,” he said.
He ended by telling the children that they have a choice not to get caught up in the justice system.
“Life is all about choices. You have to choose, and you have to be smart. So if you don’t like someone, you don’t have to fight them. You can forgive them for you, so that you can go out and live your life. Remember, it’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to,” he finished.
After his speech, Newton fielded questions from the students.