By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
MILLVILLE — The meeting at Corson Park on Friday, June 30, was small, but the emotion, determination among the attendees along with their frustration over getting something done about violence among young people in Cumberland County could be heard throughout.
Organized by J.T. Burks, the founder of the youth nonprofit Positive Vibes, parents of young people lost to gun violence and supporters spoke out, urging people to step up and make their voices heard about the violence and for elected officials and others to take action.
Burks said he took it upon himself to organize the meeting because of the recent deaths of young people in the community.
June was a particularly bloody month for young people in the county. On June 3, two teenage males, 16 and 17 were killed in what police called a targeted shooting in Bridgeton. On June 12, a 20-year-old was shot and killed in Millville.
On June 17, a 16-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy died of gunshot wounds in Bridgeton that police described as an ambush. Then on June 25, police found the body of a 16-year-old Millville boy shot dead in Bridgeton.
“We’ve been losing too many,” Burks told Front Runner New Jersey, at Corson Park as the event broke up. “We wanted to mobilize as a community to see if we can brainstorm and try to do away with those issues.
“I hope that we can mobilize and realize the ‘urgency of now’ as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says. We want to do more and reach out to parents and do more than what is expected of us. We want to speak to them on their level.”
During the conversation, emcee and local community activist Tracy Wells-Huggins called it a community conversation where parents and volunteers shared their stories. She called on the attendees to be a “beacon of light” in their neighborhoods.
“[Young people] need us to be consistent and show up for them,” Wells-Huggins said. “They need us to have a heart that never gives up on them. And if we want Christ to be in the midst, then we need to be the beacons for Christ. We should be his hands in the land.”
The event had the ears of the county’s top law enforcement officials — Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae and Sheriff Robert Austino — who both attended to listen to citizens. Millville city commissioner Robert Parent also attended.
Luz Vasquez, who lost her son Chad Stuart when he was shot unarmed in a parking lot, said that forgiveness had to be an important part of the solution to prevent would could end up being an endless spiral of retaliation.
“It was important for us with so many young deaths in this county to send a message to not retaliate but to choose forgiveness,” Vasquez said. “I needed to share my story. I know it has helped me. I hope it has helped others. It has helped my children process the emotions and everything that goes with losing someone to gun violence to respond how I believe God would want us to respond.
“We forgive because God forgave us, even at the worst times when the world doesn’t think we deserve it. It’s really not about the murderer, but about us being free from the bondage of bitterness. That’s cancer to the soul.”
Marcia Eduardo said she did everything to help her son before he was lost to gun violence. She said she started a non-profit organization named after her son, Hope for Hank, to help other families and children in need of life skills and other resources. “By the grace of God, I’m still here and I’m grateful,” she said. “I ask all of you to believe in God.”
Wells-Huggins stressed to the audience to take the words of the speakers and get involved, quoting the passage from The Bible that “Faith without works is dead.”
“So, we’ve got work to do,” the longtime activist and local nurse said. “We’ve got work to do that requires that we step out of our comfort zone, lay down our labels and titles and get to the root of this thing. It means we no longer villainize parents. The moment that something goes wrong with our children, who feels it the most? That parent.”
Local community activist Raynard Gross said he wants to start recording youth with t-shirts asking for prayers and guidance as a visual statement addressing their needs.
“The youth need prayer and guidance. I was once a youth who had no guidance. I was out there doing everything you could think of, but I had good mentors in my life. If I see a group of kids playing basketball, I just pull over and just talk to them and play with them. Young people beat me in horse, but I still give them lessons. They just need that time to make them feel good.”
Gross said he challenges people in the community to engage youth the same way — informally and casually and not necessarily through an organized program. “We have to work together, too. Even the police officers, we’re here for you and you’re here for us. We need you to as much as you need us.” Wells-Huggins asked everyone to form a circle and join hands at the end of the community conversation for prayer.
Austino said he was impressed with the conversation but added it’s just a start of what needs to be done. “There were way too many shootings and waves of violence and we have to gather as a community,” Austino said. “We have to gather as a community to solve this problem. Police cannot do this alone. We’re just a band-aid. I hope that people will rally around this a volunteer more to mentor kids and keep an eye on them.”
One woman said the Millville city commissioners were looking for city ambassadors to bring information to citizens and encouraged them to attend meetings. They are asking for citizens in each ward to be involved.
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