“If you've had enough of political leaders from all parties using children as political props and pawns and talking about family values while not supporting what families need to raise healthy, safe, moral, and educated children, come stand with us.” --Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children’s Defense Fund
Back in 1996, as a young person serving on the Plainfield School Board, I headed a committee called “Stand For Children.” We sent three busloads of Plainfielders, including our young people, to the Children's Defense Fund’s “Stand for Children Day” March on Washington. This was the largest gathering ever in D.C. to focus solely on advocating for children. Hundreds of grassroots organizations were in attendance—all of us who cared about kids were there.
At the time, my dear friend Pepsi Charles was the administrator for the Healthy Adolescent grant in partnership with the Plainfield Health Center (now known as the Neighborhood Health Services Corporation). Some of you may also remember that Pepsi hosted a long-running program on WBAI radio!
The student interns (all college students) trained like the freedom bus riders of the 1960s, and were filled with passion and commitment. It was an amazing day, and we returned with fresh energy to continue tackling the issues of most concern to our young people.
Upon our return, Pepsi stated that she wanted to bring Freedom Schools and the “Beat the Odds” scholarship program to Plainfield. These programs would be awarded as gifts, to students who had overcome insurmountable odds in order to graduate. The students were not all “A” students, of course, but they were OUR kids, who, despite having to serve as caregivers to parents or grandparents or brothers and sisters, having to hold down a job while also finding time to study, trying as hard as possible to avoid the lure of the streets, were able to graduate.
Pepsi brought the health center and adolescent grant idea to me, and to Anna Belin-Pyles (our current interim superintendent), Denise Shipman and Danice Stone, all School-Based Youth Services staff. We made a commitment, traveling to the Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm in Tennessee to brainstorm strategies for student success with other policymakers and community builders. Pepsi brought the “Freedom School” and “Beat the Odds” programs to Plainfield. She also founded “Plainfield Cooks,” a fundraiser to pay for scholarships for “Beat the Odds.” The first “Plainfield Cooks” event was held in 1999.
This year, Alma Cruz, another of Pepsi’s dear friends and a tireless community activist in her own right, has organized this year’s “Plainfield Cooks” on the 10th anniversary of Pepsi's death. The event will take place this Saturday, May 5th, from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm, at Plainfield High School, as part of the Health Fair and Family Fitness Event, sponsored by the Greater Union County Chapter of Jack and Jill of America in conjunction with Links /PHS Health Fair, with free screenings, fitness activities, and a blood drive by NJ Blood Services.
As a teacher and member of Plainfield High School’s Wellness Committee, I hope you will encourage your family and friends to come out to this event, to honor Pepsi’s memory, and to donate blood and take advantage of all the free screenings and fitness activities.
The freedom school still exists as the Summer Enrichment Program, now run by Zelda Spence, of School Based Youth Services. That program, as part of Pepsi’s legacy, teaches our students how to be “servant leaders”…that’s what Pepsi taught us to be. This is a fitting tribute to Pepsi.