L-R, Rev. Watson Haynes, high school graduate Jeremiah Daniels, Linda Watson and Brandon Williams
BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – School’s out for summer, but New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, where the Pastor L. Don Middleton tends his flock, didn’t waste any time honoring its youth members with a special afternoon of inspiration.
More than 40 students last month, all attendees of the church, were recognized for being promoted to the next grade, and two graduating seniors heading off to greener pastures.
Minister Corey Givens, Jr. from the Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church played the role of master of ceremony and gave the youth words of encouragement.
“Whatever that something special is that you have yet to accomplish, you need an education to accomplish it,” said Givens, Jr.
He wants children to understand that education is a life shaper. The knowledge they learn today may well determine the direction they, and the nation, go in the next 10-30 years, and that it is up to students to clear their own path.
“The responsibility for your education lies in the hands of you.”
Dr. Nathaniel Crawford, an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College and retired Air Force Chaplain, teaches courses in world religions and ethics. Students intently listened as he delivered his message.
To Crawford, education is vital, the currency of the future, and motivation is the catalyst that will propel anyone willing to climb aboard to a new level of learning.
“Those who have it are going to go, and those who don’t are going to be left behind,” Colonel Crawford said, citing how gaining an education was a driving force in the procurement of rights for African Americans. “Education was one important thing in the history of our sojourn in this country. That was a big thing to get educated.”
Keeping God first is important to the members at New Pleasant Grove, and Crawford encouraged all graduates, especially the two graduating seniors who are off to adventures in the military and a post-secondary school, to never lose their faith.
Crawford detailed how he endured attending the all-white Marion Military Institute in Alabama, a school where he was the sole person to integrate. There were 799 cadets who attended his freshman year, and aside from his teammates on the basketball court, Crawford remembers a year’s worth of silence. No one spoke to him.
But he trusted in the Lord, and his faith brought him through hard times. A message he wants to be sure sticks with youths today.
“All our education, all our positions ain’t going to help us by itself. Prayer changes people, and people change things,” said Crawford. “Don’t depend only on your own knowledge. Put Him first in everything.”
The ceremony marked the first time students were recognized for school promotion by the church. Brandon Williams, chairman of the Education Committee at New Pleasant Grove, spearheaded (although he won’t admit it) efforts to energize the church into recognizing the accomplishments of the youngest members.
“We want to incentivize, to encourage our students in the church,” said Williams, who is also an attorney in Tampa with Strems Law Firm.
He wants the youth to soak in the positive consequences for excelling in school and feel the thrill that comes when celebrated.
“It’s very important because there’s just not enough positive reinforcement,” he said. “We’re all about the kids here. That’s one of the hallmarks of this church. We’re children first.”
One way New Pleasant Grove puts children first is by keeping track of student’s grades. Each grading period, the education committee is checking up on those excelling in their studies and presenting them with a positive token during sermons, in front of family and friends.
“It will also give us the opportunity to help the students who aren’t achieving well,” said Williams. “I think that’s the biggest thing, to be aware of the students struggling in school.”
Committee members speak with parents on a weekly basis, instructing them on how to stay abreast on their child’s academic needs. Education Committee member Linda Watson expects the youths to also participate in church activities to reap the benefits.
The children must choose a ministry to be on whether it’s the usher board, singing in the choir or becoming a member of the drill and step teams. There is also a dance group that will start meeting on alternating Sundays.
Watson has given the children an agenda filled with exciting ways to fill their time and create bonds.
“We’ve gotten a lot of kids to get involved,” she said.
Graduates were encouraged to stay on their path and not expect success to be easy or the steps to it entertaining. Community mentors laid out a little tough love reiterating that studying isn’t always fun, clicking with every teacher isn’t always possible and that some school assignment won’t seem relevant, but the overall mantra was that students continue to try.
“When you give up on yourself, you give up on your family,” said Givens, Jr. “You have to have faith; you have to believe.”
Rev. Watson Haynes helped out by taking part in presenting students with certificates of appreciation for their commitment to education.