From a young age, Jessica Smith’s family taught her the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and explained the importance of what he fought for.
When she was in school, her parents would go to her class with music, portraits and stories to teach the students about King and other major figures in black history.
“Very early on I had been impacted with the knowledge of Dr. Martin Luther King, being raised in a home where his efforts were not really taught, but celebrated as pivotal in my American history,” Smith said. “I actually learned about his impact early on, even before going to school.”
On Wednesday, Smith was one of eight people to earn a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award from in Congers. Smith does a variety of things with ARC, including from teaching the importance of personal safety to transporting people to Rockland Community College so they can take classes. She was presented with the award by Jennifer Feil of ARC.
“The Martin Luther King Jr. Award was meant to honor a wonderful and hardworking person who performs a job with honor and great tact while enriching the live experiences of others in the process, and you’ve done each and every one of those things, Jess,” Feil said.
Smith talked about seeing what King fought for especially after joining the work force, where she saw issues with things like equal pay, benefits and higher education scholarships.
“Then I came to ARC. Here, where so many of the people who come daily might get ignored, might get mistreated or even devalued somewhere else, I was made to see that it was even for their treatment that Dr. King conferred, held rallies and made speeches,” she said.
The awards were ’s 12th annual, and people who work for the organization or use its services are eligible to win. They are nominated by the directors and assistant directors of their divisions.
“There’s always deserving people to give awards to,” said Karyl Caplan, ARC of Rockland’s executive director. “Dr. King fought hard for equal rights and we believe our honorees are doing the same. There are still civil rights issues today.”
Another honoree was Philomena Simons, who since 2004 has attended ARC of Rockland’s Franklin Square campus in Pearl River, which serves people after high school while they enter the next phase of their lives. Simons also works two days a week as a volunteer at ARC’s Prime Time For Kids, an early learning center in New City.
“I love working with the kids and enjoy singing with them,” Simons said.
She also volunteers with Meals on Wheels and People-to-People’s Project Joy.
Maxem Thebaud was honored for his work at ARC as a direct support professional. He takes members in ARC programs to the movies and out to eat regularly, talks to them about what recreational activities they want to do then sets those up. Recently, he traveled with a group of 14 people to Florida.
Thebaud said he previously worked with people with special needs as a trainer, which led him to seek out more to do.
“Seeing those who I trained reach their goals became one of the best part of my jobs,” he said. “After recognizing my passion for helping those who have developmental disabilities made me want to pursue this line of work on a level where my time and energy can benefit them on a greater scale.”
Shaheem Melvin has attended numerous courses with ARC, and learned how to present himself to potential employers on job interviews. Melvin not only has two jobs currently, but was hired on the spot at the interview for one of them.
Sandra Hendrickson has been a habilitation specialist with ARC since 1999. During her acceptance speech, she talked about going to visit her grandmother in Atlanta when she was a teenager. Hendrickson said she went to the movies one night only to have an usher yell a racial slur at her, grab her by the back of the neck and throw her out of the theater. After explaining what happened to her grandmother, Hendrickson said her grandmother told her in Atlanta she needed to make sure she went places that had a “colored only” sign.
She talked about how King’s hope is the current population’s responsibility, and that everyone must continue his vision of equality. She finished up by talking about the numerous people she’s worked with during her time with ARC.
“The individuals I have served over the years have been my salvation. These interesting people are of many hearts and many hands. We have built a bonding relationship,” she said. “They have provided me with a language I would not have ordinarily used. They have taught me to be humble and more tolerant. They have given me laughter and joy when I was down. They taught me to communicate without words and to understand their needs and wants through their eyes. I am a proud individual for being blessed with the opportunity to work closely with these special people. Each one teaches one.”
ARC of Rockland’s 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award Winners:
- Shaheem Melvin
- Maxem Thebaud
- Evette Caminsky
- Jessica Smith
- Gerard LaFleur
- Philomena Simons
- Sandra Hendrickson