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Paterson Youth Council Holds 18th Annual MLK Youth Recognition Awards

Paterson Youth Council Holds 18th Annual MLK Youth Recognition Awards

January 17, 2024

View our Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Recognition Awards Breakfast photos.

Please watch the video of this year's MLK Youth Recognition Awards Breakfast

Each year, to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy, our Paterson Youth Council (PYC) members host the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Youth Recognition Awards Breakfast. This is one of many activities hosted by the PYC, our yearlong leadership development and civic engagement program for 30 Paterson teens. The annual event celebrates Paterson community members who embody Dr. King's vision for public service and civil rights, and work hard to support Paterson youth.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is always an important time here at NJCDC. In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, which designated the federal holiday as a national day of service. Additionally, the act gave the newly created Corporation for National and Community Service — also known as AmeriCorps — the responsibility of leading this day of service. As longtime friends of NJCDC know, NJCDC was also founded in 1994 and our first program was an AmeriCorps program. Since that very first AmeriCorps class led a day of service on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we've always said that the holiday is a "day on" rather than a "day off" for us!

This year, on Monday, January 15th, our AmeriCorps team held a coat drive at the Great Falls Youth Center. More than 200 Paterson residents in need came to the event, and our AmeriCorps members gave them coats, toys, and essential items, as well as hot breakfasts. Volunteers — including employees from Santander Bank — helped throughout the day, donating their time to serve the Paterson community.

Meanwhile, over at The Brownstone, our PYC members held the 18th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Youth Recognition Awards Breakfast. Throughout the event, the PYC honored four Paterson youth, an adult, an elected official, and a local youth-serving organization who are making a difference in their community.

More than 150 guests were at the breakfast, including Mayor Andre Sayegh, First Lady Farhanna Sayegh, and their children; Passaic County Commissioners John Bartlett, Sandi Lazzara, and Orlando Cruz; Passaic County Clerk Danielle Ireland-Imhof and Clerk to the Passaic County Board of County Commissioners Louis Imhof; Paterson City Council President Alex Mendez and Vice President Luis Velez; and NJCDC Trustees Bill Pascrell III and Carline Morrison. Also in attendance were Assemblyman Benjie Wimberley and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, who congratulated the recipients for their hard work serving Paterson youth.

The event kicked off with a warm welcome by Eddie Gonzalez, NJCDC's Special Assistant to the CEO/Director of Community Outreach and a PYC advisor, before listening to a message from Senator Cory Booker. "We are only here because of people before us who created the path that allowed us to be here, and I'm very grateful. This is one of my favorite events because we take time to actually honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," said Eddie. "I say thank you to all those who continue that legacy, who continue to fight to make sure that our youth have an opportunity, especially opportunities that we didn't have.

David Gelman, NJCDC's Chief Program Officer and PYC advisor, then spoke briefly before inviting this year's PYC President, Mohammed Arham, to speak. "At the Paterson Youth Council, we are ambassadors of good will and change. Together we are not only learning leadership — we are actually practicing it," said Mohammed. "We demonstrate the spirit of service and dedication by actively influencing the future of our community."

Guests were then delighted to hear a wonderful musical performance by Paterson's own Tiffani McCutchen, who sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," before the PYC members presented the awards to the recipients.

This year's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Youth Recognition Awards recipients were:

Middle School – Esmerelda Savinon

Esmerelda is a 7th-grade student at Paterson Public School 16, where she boasts a 4.0 GPA and has been named both student of the month and literacy student of the month. She won her school's debate competition last year and is on the school's safety patrol, cheer squad, and fundraising teams. Outside of school, she participates in Focus 21, Girl Power, and the Paterson Music Project. She also participates in the Paterson Police Department's Women of Wisdom program, and attended their Anti-Violence Youth summer camp this year. According to her nominator, Ms. Sonja Capers, Esmerelda accomplishes any task with great initiative, while being true to herself at all times. She never looks for accolades as she serves, and is giving of her time and talent. Esmerelda centers herself around positive people who help nurture her and develop her skills, and her best years are ahead of her.

Middle School – Rebeca Nunez Gonzalez

Rebeca is an 8th grader at Paterson Public School 18, where she is an Honor Roll Student and a third-year member of the National Junior Honor Society. During lunch and recess, she volunteers to assist her teachers and classmates with a wide range of services, and expects nothing in return. Rebeca expresses that it simply makes her feel good to help others. According to her nominator Ms. Jane Marte, Rebeca treats everyone she encounters with kindness and respect, from the school principal to substitute teachers. She believes that everyone is deserving of the same respect, regardless of who they are or where they are from. Rebeca is always ready and willing to give of herself to others. In class, Rebeca goes out of her way to help other students who may be struggling without being asked. She takes on a leadership role during group work and is a valuable member of every class discussion. She communicates her opinions respectfully and always listens to the opinions of others with that same respect, traits that undoubtedly represent the legacy of Dr. King.

High School – Yazier Brown

Yazier is in 10th grade at College Achieve Paterson Charter High School, where he maintains a 3.8 GPA. He participates in the Paterson Police Department Youth Engagement Program and the Great Falls Youth Center. Yazier is also a member of the Halls that Inspire Junior Ambassadors Youth Arts Initiative, a program that empowers students to beautify the hallways they walk in every day. Yazier is a key contributor in recruiting other teens to the program, and has advocated for art in Paterson in speeches at City Hall, Paterson Public Schools, and to other City Council members. Last year, he was featured in a Channel 11 story about a mural project his group completed at Paterson School 2. In his time with Halls that Inspire, Yazier has completed over 750 hours of community service through beautification projects. According to his nominator, Mr. David Thompson, Yazier is a natural born leader, who is positive in his words, actions and impact- through his passion and compassion for all people. According to Yazier, art has taught him lessons as valuable as any he will learn in the classroom. "Don't get mad over mistakes," he says. "You're doing art. You can really put that into real life. 'Oh, I did this wrong.' You can do it again. You can do it again. You learn to just not be so pressed about if you did something wrong."

High School – Nydia Cos-Rivera

Nydia is in 12th grade at International High School, where she boasts a 4.59 GPA, and participates in both the Spanish club and the International club. She is captain of Eastside High School's Varsity Soccer and Softball teams, and also participates in Flag Football. At her Church, St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Nydia serves as an Event Coordinator and tutors students ages 5 to 13. According to her nominator, Mr. Vincent Giardina, Nydia has the ability to inspire everyone around her to do better. Much like Dr. King, she has an intangible quality that radiates among those around her, and is reflected in her work both in school and out in the community. This translates into a spirit of leadership in Nydia that students look up to, and that teachers admire. Mr. Giardina says Nydia is one of the most dedicated and hard-working individuals he has ever worked with, and she radiates a character of peace, serenity and conscience in the spirit of Dr. King.

Youth-Serving Adult – Angely Francisco

Ms. Francisco works as a Community Advocate on the Programs team at CUMAC, where she started as an intern. At CUMAC, she constantly works on partnerships, programs and strategies to remove barriers related to the six pillars of food insecurity on behalf of Paterson young people and their families. Much of the population that Ms. Francisco serves attend Passaic County Community College, and are entrusted with caring for their families at a young age. She treats her clients like family—acting as a guide, liaison, and advocate throughout the entire process, from appointment scheduling to food acquisition. Ms. Francisco takes charge of everything: setting up tables, coordinating outreach, presenting student workshops, registering them for marketplace appointments, attending meetings with the PCCC wellness advisory board, assisting students with benefit applications, Medicaid, energy assistance programs, and so much more. She has established a connection with these students and their families, including younger siblings, which lets CUMAC serve even more of Paterson's youth. Her work is giving these young people the opportunity and resources to chase a more promising future. According to her nominator, Ms. Jessica Padilla Gonzalez, Ms. Francisco embodies Dr. King's philosophy off a beloved community, and reflects in her work that freedom for the oppressed requires food justice. Ms. Francisco is wholeheartedly committed to the vision of food justice inspired by Dr. King, and the staff gets to bear witness to her unrivaled level of passion to center Paterson's youth in that vision every day. She does this not because it is glamorous, but because the well-being of the city's youth is of the utmost priority to her. She feels that each of these children mean something to her, precisely because they mean EVERYTHING to someone else.

Youth-Serving Organization – Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc.

Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc., commonly known as Lambda, is a multicultural fraternity founded in 1975 at Kean University. Lambda has a strong commitment to community service and philanthropy, focusing on issues that affect the Latino community. In 2023, the Lambda Gamma alumni chapter initiated multiple events that gave back to the Paterson community. In April, Lambda Gamma hosted its annual Lambda Giving Day in Paterson where they distributed 250 hot meals and care packages to the community, and delivered a week's worth of groceries to 70 families from New Roberto Clemente School. That month, they also held an event that raised over $1,500 for a local child abuse program, and participated in the Paterson Police Community Affairs after-school program. Later in the year, Lambda Gamma collaborated again with Paterson Police Community Affairs to distribute 250 book bags filled with school supplies to New Roberto Clemente School students, and distributed over 500 free turkeys to the Paterson community at Thanksgiving time. They also hosted their annual Thanksgiving Service with Councilwoman Cotton to give out food and warm clothing to the community, and served breakfast along with Christmas activities to over 300 students and their families at Paterson Public School 2.

Elected Official – Commissioner Dr. Jonathan Hodges

Commissioner Dr. Jonathan Hodges is a retired physician, who served on the Paterson Public Schools Board of Education for 21 years. He first joined the board while working as an emergency room physician, where he saw the struggles of young people—including those who experienced violence—and recognized that students with significant medical needs also often had significant educational needs. As a board member, Dr. Hodges became a leader in addressing financial challenges and landmark court battles to reform funding for education and infrastructure. He continues to fight for the high-quality education that he believes Paterson children so richly deserve. Dr. Hodges has been a delegate to the New Jersey School Board Association's Urban Boards committee, which he chaired for six years. He has also served on the association's board of directors and has been a representative at the Delegate Assembly. Earlier this school year, Dr. Hodges received the prestigious Benjamin Elijah Mays Lifetime Achievement Award by the National School Board Association, which celebrates his decades of service to Paterson Public Schools and his advocacy for educational excellence. In his acceptance speech, Dr. Hodges discussed experiences from his youth that fueled his determination to ensure that every child in Paterson receives the education they deserve. He emphasized that the award is just a down payment on the job that is yet to be completed, and thanked the community for their support and participation in this important task.

Please watch our MLK Youth Recognition Awards video

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