MLK essay winner Alexandra Lewis is a senior at Red Bank Regional High School. 

[Press release]

It was an unconventional commemoration to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But the theme of love, perseverance and service shined throughout YMCA of Greater Monmouth County’s first virtual event honoring the civil rights leader.For 32 years, the Y has brought together community leaders, students, and residents from across Monmouth County to remember Dr. King at the annual memorial service. This year, due to COVID-19, guests joined a live-streamed celebration on January 15 from their homes and offices.

The hour-long event was highlighted by two high school students sharing their award-winning Dr. King essays, the presentation of the MLK Human Dignity Award, and remarks from keynote speaker Pastor Kerwin Webb from Second Baptist Church in Asbury Park.

“After reading their essays, there is a boulder of hope for me,” said MLK Committee Chairman Mike Wright, who offered opening remarks and introduced the speakers and those honored during the event.

Alexandra Lewis, a senior at Red Bank Regional High School, was one of the winners. Lewis penned and published a book of poetry last year. In her essay, she wrote about her experience attending a mostly white, private school as well as her experience in a diverse high school, Red Bank Regional. She wrote, “I use my writing and poetry to help my friends understand how hurtful words can impact someone of color.”

Vaughn Greason, a senior at Freehold Township High School, was also selected as an essay contest winner. His essay described his observations growing up in a largely white community and experiencing racism as a teen in and outside of school. Despite learning about a building across from his school that was used in the past as a meeting house for the Ku Klux Klan, Greason did not give up hope, suggesting in his essay that people follow MLK’s writing and wisdom.

Both Greason and Lewis received a $1,500 scholarship sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey Natural Gas and PorterPlus Realty, along with a YMCA membership. They were applauded by all on the committee. “Your voices are so important and please continue to use them forever and ever,” said Gilda Rogers, a community activist and vice president of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation Board.

Keynote speaker Pastor Webb, who serves as president of the Greater Red Bank Area NAACP, said Dr. King was more than just the guy “who had a dream.” Webb said, “Dr Martin Luther King was more than just a dreamer, more than a prophet, he was a public theologian who spoke to the realities of Christian existence and response…if King were here, how would he grade us, from the words he spoke in the 60’s all the way to 2021, have we learned, have we grown?”

After Webb’s remarks, he called on last year’s inaugural recipient of the MLK Human Dignity award, Wayne Boatwright, to present this year’s award to Gwendolyn Love, executive director of Lunch Break. Quoting Dr. King, Boatwright said: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” And, he continued, “indeed, it is love that has made all the difference. I cannot think of a more deserving person to whom I can pass the torch.”

Love said she was humbled and overwhelmed to receive the Human Dignity Award. She credited her team of employees, board members, volunteers, and supporters at Lunch Break with upholding Dr. King’s message of non-violence and equality. “We treat everyone who walks through our doors with dignity, respect and compassion,” she said.

YMCA President and CEO Laurie Goganzer reflected upon the past year and its challenges for the YMCA during the pandemic. Goganzer described how the organization continued to follow through with its 2020 Togetherhood volunteer initiative – launched at last year’s MLK event – even after the Y was closed during the statewide shutdown.

“Our world changed after our launch, but our commitment to give back never wavered,” Goganzer said. “We are not a Y in the community, we are a Y ‘for’ the community,” she said as she introduced a video highlighting the host of new programs and services the Y rolled out this past year to support the community during the health crisis.

“Our world can no longer be a place where people are passive to accept things, we must be intentional in our actions and deeply connected to one another through service,” Goganzer added.

Goganzer said the YMCA will continue its Togetherhood program through 2021 and she invited the community to get involved. “Every month there will be an opportunity to connect with others, volunteer time and to be open to show kindness to those who need it most.”

Pastor Ronald Sparks of Bethel AME in Freehold gave a benediction and Zahmere Johnson performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

In his closing remarks, MLK Committee Chair Wright said, “This memorial event is our call to action and we hope you have been inspired to be part of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.”

The MLK commemoration can be viewed on YouTube.

Goganzer said the Y is grateful for the organizers, sponsors and committee members for an unprecedented virtual commemorative event.

Event Sponsors:
• Civic Engagement & Changemaker – PNC Wealth Management
• Civic Engagement – Brookdale Community College, Pia and Peter McCarthy
• Changemaker – Lunch Break
• MLK Essay – Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey Natural Gas and PorterPlus Realty
• Social Justice – Lynn Dash, Jim and Sue Harbison, John and Robin Klein, Craig and Tara McGraw, Monmouth Reform Temple, PorterPlus Realty, Red Bank Council members Kate Triggiano and Yazim Hassin, John Tatulli, and John Worley.

MLK Committee Members:
Wayne Boatwright, Hackensack Meridian Health; Sue Harbison, HABcore; Thomas Hayes, New Jersey Natural Gas; Darryl Hughes, Hackensack Meridian Health; Rabbi Marc Kline, Monmouth Reform Temple; Gwen Love, Lunch Break; Pastor Jessica Naulty, United Methodist Church of Red Bank; Samara O’Neill, PorterPlus Realty; Gilda Rogers, T. Thomas Fortune House; Reverend Ronald L. Sparks, Bethel AME Freehold; and Michael Wright.