By Daniel Winner | AC JosepH Media Correspondent

Vineland — The Vineland African American Community Development Corporation (VAACDC) honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 95th birthday 8:00 a.m this Monday, Jan. 15 with a Dr. King Program Breakfast titled “What’s Next?” held at the Academy Ballroom, 17 W. Landis Ave.

The event was held in conjunction with Cumberland County Cultural & Heritage Commission, Vineland High School (VHS) African American Experience classes, the Greater Vineland NAACP No. 2215, and the Bridgeton Area Chapter of National Congress of Black Women

Several noteworthy participants attended the event, including local artist, poet and playwright Ty Lewis and comedian Chris Clark, as well as traveling party band The Muzik.

Ty Lewis stands with his artwork.
Bridgeton native and comedian Chris Clark.
The Muzik band plays at the Academy Ballroom.

The spotlight however, was on keynote speaker Michael Parrish, a survivor of abuse who made headlines when it was discovered that he and his brothers had been starved at the hands of their adoptive parents Raymond and Vanessa Jackson. Michael and his three brothers Tre’Shawn, Terrell and Bruce became known as the “Collingswood Boys” when their story went viral many years ago.

Parrish gave a presentation to ballroom attendees, which he aptly called “Get Over It: Nobody Cares” in order to highlight the struggles that abused children face in a society that tends to look away. Born in Cambridge, Maryland, Parrish and his older brother Tre’Shawn were picked up by the Department of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) — now known as the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) — when it was revealed that they lived with an alcoholic mother, a drug-addicted father, and a physically abusive aunt. They were later adopted by the Jackson family in New Jersey, but this is where things took a turn for the worse. 

“Just to put it in perspective, what we had to eat [included] mixed vegetables and pancake batter,” Parrish explained. “Anything that could degrade a person, that’s what we were given. We had to use our own vomit to survive. We ate pieces of wall. Pretty much anything. Anything that wasn’t normal, that’s what we got.”

On Oct. 10, 2003, nineteen-year old and 45 pound Bruce was found by neighbors in a garbage can searching for food at 3 a.m. At age nine, Parrish only weighed 23 pounds. In October 2005, the four boys’ lawyers settled a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey for $12.5 million, making it one of the largest settlements in the country for a child welfare case.

Michael Parrish speaks about his survival.

“A lot of people of color, we don’t like to call out the elephant in the room,” Parrish remarked. “If you’re hurt, or if you’re abused or anything like that, it’s best to speak up, because either one or two things is gonna happen: Either your mental is gonna go, and you’re gonna turn crazy, and everybody’s going to turn their back on you; or you’re going to stand up and you’re going to fight against that. You’re gonna fight to make sure that your kids and my kids don’t have to go through that.

“We’re a community. We’re supposed to work together. We’re supposed to look out for other people’s kids. And there’s too many of our kids dying and too many people saying, ‘Oh, well, forget these kids. They got to grow up, they got their own lives. I got my own life.’ But we need each other.”

Parrish also shared his experience with child protection agencies. “The DYFS system uses people 24/7. DYFS has been called on my friends. Guess what DYFS does? ‘Oh, let’s make an investigation. Okay, let’s see what they’re doing. Let’s see what…’ and it’s like, no, there’s other kids out here that need help. But you want to respond to the petty cases. You want to respond to things that don’t really matter. You want to mess up a good happy family over [things like] affording a new bed. [My daughter] has a bed. She has the things that she needs and there’s kids out here that are eating out of trash cans that we don’t know about. The only thing we see is ‘feed the African children’ and ‘free them, free the Ethiopians.’ What about America? What about New Jersey? We have poor people everywhere and it’s not even just kids that are part of it. We have poor people everywhere. The first thing we do is look at them and say, ‘Hm, you’re not on my level.’ Well, maybe their mental is shot. Maybe they need help.”

After these many hardships, and an opportunity to share his story on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Parrish expressed his position that it’s time to take a stand for himself and his beliefs. “I felt that I needed to speak today because I’m at a point in life where I’m tired. I’m at a point in life for fixing the broken heart. I’m fixing and I’m amending my life for my kids. But it’s time for me to get what I deserve. The state keeps hiding and the state keeps messing up and they use people like my parents. They use people like law guardians and stuff like that to control you and say, ‘No, you are crazy because of your mom and dad. You are crazy because you went through this.’ Nobody can stand through that. But I didn’t [have to]. God was with me every step of the way.

“The Jacksons they told me, ‘No, no, this is an eating disorder.’ Their own pastor brought them out of jail and said, ‘This is not right.’ Well, we know it’s not right, but how are we going to fix it? ‘Oh, we’re going to use God’s name and we’re just going to throw that out there.’ Don’t play with my god, please. Do not play with my god because I’m a child of God and I’m starting to realize that. I’m starting to realize where I belong. I’m starting to realize my foot in the community. I’m starting to realize that I’m just another Black man that they thought that they could get over. And I’m not him, but I’m a bulldog. I’m a pit. I want to fight. I want that interaction, because I need to show you guys that this is not it. I’m him, I’m different, and I will be different. I’m gonna stand out. I just want what’s owed to me.”

The presentation closed with Parrish giving some final words, keeping the African American community accountable for the safety and prosperity of their youth. He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by stating, “It takes empathy, patience and compassion to overcome anger, hatred and resentment.”

“We are grateful for this time,” responded Pastor Will Turner of Union Baptist Church while leading a prayer for those present. “We’re thankful for this young man’s testimony…Thank you for the example that you use through him to touch so many today.”

Pastor Will Turner gives thanks in prayer with attendees.

Other notable speakers at the event included:

  • Albert D. Porter
  • Rev. Anthony Scott
  • Dr. Darlene Bryant
  • Kathy Williamson
  • Shawn Coit
  • Omarey Williams
  • Penny Watson
  • Lance Sherrer
  • Hassan Hammed El
  • Bishop Albert Morgan
  • Fashion model Phyliss Spencer
  • Young Steff

Those honored were:

  • Jodenise Muller of VHSJROTC
  • Nylan Sutton
  • Derrick Tribbett
  • Eddie Bartee
  • Rev. Tomas Acevedo
  • Dan Hunter
  • Vineland High School JROTC
  • Rafael Mendez
  • Larae Smith
  • Isabella Mayas
  • Quasean Dixon
  • Rzezon Sylejmani
  • Randy Kemp
  • Dominique Poole
  • Mia Feliciano
  • Victor Jimenez
  • Jaden Bowman
  • Jayla Bowman
  • Zyriaj Howard
  • Allen Nobles
  • DJ Campbell
  • Noel Jones
  • Paul Bethea
  • Jay (Jairo) Rivas

EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Winner has a double major in Religious Studies and Japanese from Penn State University and has traveled internationally to the Far East on several occasions. His insights on Buddhism and Asian culture give a unique view of historical and modern trends. He will be serving as a contributor for Front Runner New Jersey.

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