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  • Barbara Rybolt, TAPinto Berkeley Heights

Berkeley Heights Celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Zoom

Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by making it a day on, not a day off. That was the message from the speakers at the Berkeley Heights Diversity Council's 6th Annual Martin Luther King. Jr. Day of Service event Monday morning.

Volunteers of all ages normally mark the Day of Service by giving back to the elderly at Autumn Lake Healthcare, a nursing home and rehabilitative care center in Berkeley Heights. This year the pandemic prevented everyone from gathering in person, so the event was held on Zoom.

Jimmy Joseph, a member of the Berkeley Heights Diversity Council (BHDC) Executive Board, hosted the virtual event, which drew an audience of about 90 people who live and/or work in Berkeley Heights.

Dr. Jean Marquis, who lives in the township, spoke on the meaning of Dr. King’s words on being “my brother’s keeper.” She said she wondered about that phrase and realized Dr. King meant showing others you care, reaching out to them with a “phone call or a visit.” Dr. Marquis said she had not been well recently, but the calls from friends and neighbors “made me feel better,” then gave a shout-out to another BHTC Board Member Toiya Facey, “The rum cake was fantastic!”

She then told how she had an opportunity to do something for someone one day at the grocery story -- a “fragile-looking woman” who was holding a sweet potato. The woman asked Dr. Marquis if she had ever tried one, then added her husband loved them, but he had died. Dr. Marquis said, “I sensed her loneliness” and soon they were in a conversation. It wasn’t long, but at the end, the elderly woman asked Dr. Marquis to pick out some small sweet potatoes for her. She did and they went their separate ways. “The opportunity is there every day (to help someone) … You just have to do it,” Dr. Marquis said. She asked people to encourage others to reach out, especially teachers, because so many children are excluded, or not being accepted for who they are. “That’s unacceptable,” she said.

Thinking about the politics of today, Dr. Marquis said, “If Dr. King were here, he would be on the front lines, fighting for our rights … constitutional and human rights.” She urged everyone to “honor him by being our brother’s keeper.”

Dr. Marquis has spoken at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day activities previously. Learn more about Dr. Marquis here.

Newly elected Councilman Jeff Varnerin said it was “great to be involved in a celebration for a man who truly served the world … a man who served his community by “inspiring the Civil Rights movement.”

Varnerin said he had grown up in a bubble, unaware of racism, but it hit home for him when his niece, who is African American, became the victim of racism, while she was finishing her PhD at “a prestigious school.” That incident “opened my eyes.” Since then his niece has been educating him, and more recently he has been “reading about unconscious bias, the history of institutional racism,” doing some “cold and sober reflection” about his own actions and has been holding listening sessions, dialogs with colleagues, changing the hiring practices at his firm and “acting as a mentor of inner city students,” he said. While there is “still much to do, as Dr. King said, ‘Whatever you do, keep it moving forward.’”

Joy Young, who was just elected to the Berkeley Heights Board of Education, showed a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in California with her Grandfather and said it was “wonderful to hear the stories and experiences everyone has had.” For her, the “seed of service was planted” when she was a young girl, visiting her grandparents, she said. Each set of grandparents was different. Her one set was from Berkeley, Calif., and that grandfather was a Bishop in his church. She said she would go with her grandparents to church and church activities, where she learned about serving others. Her other grandparents grew up “in Jim Crow South,” where her “Grannie was always making room at the dinner table for people in need.” She would “take car rides with Grannie to visit people,” some were sick, others needed other type of help. She urged everyone to carry the desire to serve “three hundred sixty-five days a year … and, after COVID, let us come together - empathetic, compassionate and more tolerant of each other!”

A special feature of the Zoom event was a video made by Governor Livingston HS Unfiltered on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The video, which featured photos and video from the Civil Rights movement, and student speakers, will be posted on the website BHDC Website.

Jimmy Joseph thanked the Board of Education, police officers, firemen and members of the emergency services for the help with the program. He encouraged everyone to "visit the website and follow us on the website." The website will be updated regularly with “all the things we face in diversity,” he said.

Toiya Farcey reminded everyone that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is “Not a day of skiing, it’s a day of work, and urged everyone to contribute an hour of their time.

Pam Yoss said she was grateful for people speaking their truth. “Look what happened. Seven or eight years ago this would not have happened. I’m grateful for all of your voices. Thank you all.”

To find out how to volunteer your time even during COVID-19, visit the website here.

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