youth center in Pleasantville prepares students for the return to class | Education

PLEASANTVILLE – As students prepare to return to class, members of the community are looking to inspire them for that first day back.

About two dozen children and teens gathered Tuesday night at the Queen’s TRY, a youth center on Woodland Avenue, for a back-to-school event. The event offered not only free school supplies and food, but also speeches from city leaders and people with insight into the challenges students may face in education.

Board of Education Vice Chair Sharnell Morgan is the founder of Queen’s TRY, which stands for Teaching Redeemable Youth. The program started this summer. Morgan said she wanted to make sure students felt they weren’t fending for themselves at the start of the school year and had the material resources and social support to succeed.

“Our city needs another outlet for our youth and young adults,” Morgan said. “You can send your children here, and we’ll take care of them.”

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The property where the center is located, which is managed by the Willows in Pleasantville, was decorated for the event with balloons and sequins. Students could pick up school supplies, including notebooks, erasers, pencils and bags that students had decorated in a previous session.

Raven Monae Johnson, 8, said she thinks the program helps children become more social in a safe environment while exploring new interests. She said it was a place where kids could learn and have fun while getting free resources.

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“I think it teaches how you’re supposed to be yourself,” Raven said. “Some children (didn’t even speak), and now they talk a lot and communicate more. I think it’s a really cool program.

Eli Henry, 12, said he appreciated the program’s support of the neighborhood and his children, providing them with healthy activities during the summer and giving them new opportunities.

“They’re actually trying to make a change to build community,” Eli said.

The center featured prominent speakers from across the region who spoke to students on topics ranging from peer pressure and poverty to violence and education. They were selected, Morgan said, as positive role models for young people who could sympathize with their experiences.

Democratic City Council candidate James Barclay addressed the students on Tuesday and gave them some general advice for the year. He said they should respect their parents and teachers while taking their education seriously. As he walked around the room, he also asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up, receiving answers ranging from chef to policeman to beautician to mechanic to football player. He praised and applauded a student who said he got all A’s in his last grading period.

Barclay, an immigrant from Liberia, spoke about his experiences and learning strategies. He spoke about his accent and the fact that English was not his first language, highlighting how important learning and communication skills were for young people.

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“In five years, seven years, you’ll be an adult, you’ll have responsibilities, but today you have to learn your lessons well and pay attention to instructions,” said Barclay, who is also a former school board member. “Don’t scold the councils…because the future is yours, everything here is for you, but you have to be ready to be a part of it, to improve, and you have to be educated.”

Other guest speakers include Egg Harbor Township Committee Member Ray Ellis; Professor LeRoy Stanford of Camden County College; Jamez King El, owner of radio station VIBE 609; and Rashid Kelly, owner of Kelly’s Koncrete.

Kelly told The Press that he strives to give students hope and introduce them to opportunities in the construction industry.

“We start by giving them some hope so we can move them forward,” Kelly said. “It’s very important, very important to give back to the community.”

“This is the beginning of the beginning of our future,” he added.

The center hosted various events over the summer, including Zumba classes, a day trip to Steel Pier in Atlantic City, painting classes and a drone demonstration.

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Morgan said she was inspired to do something for children after her experiences living in Woodland Terrace and the corruption, drug use and violence she witnessed there.

“That’s why (Queen’s TRY) is going to be successful, because I know what’s needed,” Morgan said.

Barclay’s speech drew an interjection from Tracey Barber, who helped decorate the event on Tuesday. Barber, who is 58 and Morgan’s cousin, told students she had great difficulty reading. She said she missed school a lot as a child to help her mother, who she said was blind. Barber said she spent around 30 years in prison, including a 10-year period that ended two years ago, which further disrupted her life and opportunities to learn. Addressing the students, Barber pleaded with them to continue with their schoolwork and said they were an inspiration to her.

“I want to go back to school now,” Barber said. “I won’t be embarrassed anymore.”

The program will be open from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday during the school year.

Contact Chris Doyle

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