By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
BRIDGETON — Berlinda Scurry said she didn’t know much about nonprofit 856Love Inc.’s Boys to Men “Suit Up” Initiative when it started but when her sister told her about Mel Malik Williams‘ effort to bring youth together in a life-affirming way, she was willing to trust what they had in mind for her middle school son Xavier Green.
On Saturday, April 16, the culmination of Williams’ program, which started with his organization purchasing the first suits and ties for 20 young local young people and mentoring them, came together in a motivational event at Hopeloft in downtown Bridgeton.
The elegant red and black décor was only upstaged by the enthusiasm and positive energy displayed by organizers and parents as the suit-and-tie wearing young men took their places at the event to be fed and listen to moving speakers.
The event was a celebration of receiving the youth but all the possibilities that comes with it. On Saturday, Williams was joined by his wife Audrey Williams, mother and other volunteers.
Williams announced the Boys to Men Suit Up Initiative in January, focusing on age 7-16-year-old boys to teach them the importance of image, being properly dressed while preparing them for future opportunities and life.
“I just decided it was a good idea for him to be involved in things to have other male influences in his life,” said Scurry of her son, a seventh grader at Fairfield Township School. “I am a single mom right now, so it’s just a good thing to get them involved in something where you can see other men doing positive things.”
Green, one of the first youths to arrive at Saturday’s event, said he felt the gathering was “pretty cool” and it was “inspiring” to meet community leaders and other young people. Along with the meal and great speeches, Damond Benjamin of Making Memories Photo Booths captured the youth in dynamic 360 videos.
Williams, the executive director for 856Love, raised money throughout the community and on social media to purchase the suits and accessories. Each suit was tailored and fitted. When he took them out, he said it was important to have them pick out on their own what they wanted to wear.
“You could see it in their eyes,” said Williams, a community advocate and founder of 856Love. “It gave them a sense of pride, a sense of awareness and a sense of knowing that you don’t have to have sagging jeans to be cool. You could dress up and still be cool.
“When I grew up, with my grandmother and my mother, we went to church on Easter Sunday, and they bought us suits. Now this is Easter weekend and these young men are in suits. I took it right back.”
That feeling of pride could be felt as the young men walked into the Hopeloft, like Na’shaun Meade, a sophomore at Bridgeton High School with his brother Adrian Meade, a 3rd grader, at Bridgeton’s Cherry Street School, and Owen Taylor, a sophomore at Millville High School.
Shantai Hollis walked into Hopeloft with pride along with her son Michael Hollis, a seventh grader at Hopewell Crest School before pausing for pictures with Williams. They both received encouraging words from speakers as they walked in.
“This is empowering,” said John Fuqua, one of Cumberland County’s leading anti-violence and youth advocates as executive director of Life Worth Living. He was one of the keynote speakers Saturday. “We watch on the news and we see the president, senators and business leaders putting on their power suits.
“It’s important for us to instill that in our young people. We want to introduce them to that early with the idea of putting on a suit and tie. It’s those little things that are all building blocks of becoming a more successful man. These young people are going to remember this moment and what it means.”
The young men who appeared at Saturday’s celebration included:
- Rashawn Campbell
- Jermie Cheeks Jr.
- Xavier Green
- Edward Grend
- Jayden Hernandez
- Ziyon Holland
- Michael Hollis
- Ayrius Kent
- Mahkai Lamar
- Markel Lamar
- Vernon Lamar
- Ashon Lloyde
- Adrian Meade
- Na’Shawn Meade
- Owen Taylor
Other speakers included Dwayne Smith, a Bridgeton native who traveled from Baltimore to participate; athletic Hall of Famer and mentor Charlie Kates, and Vineland businessman Cesar Vargas.
“I want this to be generational for them,” Williams said. “We just don’t want this to affect the kids right now. We want them in the future to teach their kids how to tie a tie and wear a suit. I’m getting young men to pull their pants up without them even knowing it.”
Williams said he wants to spread his Boys to Men Initiative outside of Cumberland County in an effort to affect youth around the region so they can see themselves the same way businesspeople and public officials see themselves.
Williams and 856Love is accomplishing that one suit at a time. To find out more about Williams and his Boys to Men “Suit Up” Initiative, go to his Facebook page here.
Donations can be made through cash app at $856LoveInc. Contact information is as follows: firstname.lastname@example.org or (201)-852-6641.
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