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By Alysia Sims
Voices of Hope Correspondent
Asbury Park has seen its share of change over the years. While major boardwalk redevelopments are trying to attract more people to the town’s beachfront, including Convention Hall retail shops and restaurants, there are nonprofit organizations like the Mercy Center focused on building up the town, but especially for west side residents, as well as helping to make it safer.
The Mercy Center has been in Asbury Park since 1986 helping people through education, emergency, and family services. Veronica Gilbert-Tyson, the Director of the Mercy Center’s Family Resource Center, has been working in Asbury Park for 13 years. Ms. Gilbert-Tyson says there are a lot of problems occurring in Asbury Park, including violence and homelessness. “Asbury Park has almost become a dumping ground for homeless people. Newly released prisoners with nowhere to go are given a bus ticket to Asbury Park and are not being helped.” She says in many ways that is why one homeless shelter that was planned to be built was not, because people stay there for one day and go back on the streets the very next day due to little supportive programming. Affordable housing has been built, but because of the neighborhood’s safety issues many people are afraid to move there.
The Mercy Center has seen first-hand that when there are programs that provide benefits to the community supportive programming thrives. The Mercy Center’s Sisters Academy, a middle school for grades five through eight focuses on educating girls from economically challenged families in order to give them access to private high school and college education. Gilbert-Tyson feels that a similar education opportunity should be provided for boys too, “Young boys living in Asbury need something like the Sisters Academy, especially since they are more at risk.”
Recently, fathers in the community who understand those risks took a stand to improve their Asbury Park neighborhood. They are tired of the violence happening where they live, and want their children to grow up in a safer environment. The Mercy Center’s Fatherhood Empowerment Program held a unity and peace march on Saturday, August 22nd to show other residents, especially youth, that they have a voice and violence is not the way to solve issues. The group held up signs, and chanted sayings like, “Stop the violence now,” “Join the fight for peace,” and “Love yourself and your neighbor.” They also handed out flyers while they walked the eight blocks around their community. All the signs had one clear message, Unity, Peace, and Love. Their objective was to discourage violence and inform people about the numerous activities and events established at the Boys and Girls Club and Mercy Center. Starting at the Boys and Girls Club on 1201 Monroe Street, they purposely marched through the neighborhoods around the same corners that recent violence and gang activity has occurred.
Veronica Gilbert-Tyson also joined in on the march. She felt that the fathers were trying their best and observed that they seemed to feel empowered, “Just to going out and doing this in the community is a big step. This is the beginning of something really dynamic.” The younger generation is the Father’s target audience since they are the future of the community. Kourtney Blackmon, one of the coordinators of the march, said that there are too many young people with nowhere to go so they want to show them that people are there rooting for them and part of a support system for positive minded activities.
Joseph Dunbar and Blackmon are in the community every day speaking to youth and adults as well. Dunbar says it is hard because some of the younger kid’s minds are already and programmed to the streets. “The middle school aged children are the gang member’s primary target because they want to recruit early. Dunbar said, “The earlier the better because just like the army you get raised in rank. We try and catch them just as early as gang members do.”
Everyone at the march had their own personal reasons for participating. Linda Johnson grew up in Asbury Park and has witnessed how everything has changed. She pointed out where she used to live, “The houses aren’t even the same — but every house has a story.” Another participant wanted to get involved because he felt there is too much violence and innocent people are getting killed. He said, “I wanted to join the march for unity to save other innocent people in the community.” Joseph Dunbar pointed out where a group jumped him, and described how one of his close friends was shot and killed on one of the corners. He said, “I lost more friends than a little bit out here because of the violence. We want to take the streets back; we are going to take them back.”
Tracy, another participant was determined to be out there. She saw the flyer and thought it was great because she also is tired of the violence. She sees most of it unraveling right outside of her home. She felt that more people should join the march for peace, “Not a lot of people would show up for something positive like this, but the minute there is a gang fight a whole lot of people show up.” The size of the group did not stay the same throughout the whole march. One observer, Ninja the Unknown Prophet, wanted to share a poem to support the theme of unity called “Together Forever”.
There were mixed reactions about the march from people in the community. Marcher Ronald Chancey said the reactions were both positive and negative, “Those who were in favor of it showed support by raising their hands waving at us and honking their horns. Those who didn’t want to be a part of it just turned and walked away.” “Some people were shocked, Blackmon said, “but I feel good about it. I’m glad I got a chance to do it, so hopefully others will step up in the future too.”
The Fatherhood Empowerment Program plans to continue to march for unity and peace at least once a month. They know that the only way this will truly make a difference is by staying persistent and showing people that they will not tolerate the violence in the community any longer. “These marches will wake people up little-by-little. Our hope is to have people that are considering joining gangs really think about other options available. Blackmon said, “It will also hopefully get people involved in the violence think twice about whether they really want that lifestyle for themselves and their children.”
The Fatherhood Empowerment Program was started this year. The group plans to have chess tournaments, hoops for peace, and homework programs. One of the first steps the fathers took was to connect with Brookdale Community College so they could bring the GED program to the community. “Now they have two full classes, it’s a positive thing, says Gilbert-Tyson. “That’s one of the ways they can start changing their lives, through education, it’s a stepping stone for anything.” Members of the Fatherhood Empowerment Program also recognize the redevelopment by the beach. Compared to where they live it looks like a completely different town. Blackmon said the redevelopment will not be beneficial to them if people on his side of town do not wake up and start doing the right thing. “We can’t keep pushing ourselves in a hole. We have to do the right thing for our households and our community.”
For more information or to join the Fatherhood Empowerment Program contact:
Joseph Dunbar at 732.774.9397 x20
Visit their Facebook Page: Fatherhood Empowerment Program