“In a time of such intolerance, it’s that much more important for our kids to come together,” Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Zur said, and with that idea in mind, We the People was born.
We the People, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group that started in 2016, is an organization that celebrates equality and the next generation, as it brings students throughout the area together on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for a day of service. Helping citizens of all ages – from seniors to children in cancer care to those in domestic abuse centers, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service event held by We the People looks to give back to as many in need as possible, while encouraging children from grades five to eight to see how, as a community, they are more than their differences and together they are stronger.
“We started as kind of a reaction to some of the negativity we were observing with our kids; they were starting to internalize, and we really thought it was important for our kids to first of all learn about each other and realize we’re all part of one community – that they, even at age 10, have the ability to give back, and their actions have the potential of helping others and being impactful,” Zur said. “In the wake of the election and in the wake of the rising tides where people are putting others against each other, we felt it was important for our kids to realize we’re all in this together, we’re all in one community, and we can do a lot more together than we can separated.”
Its first day of service event had 85 children participating. Since then, the group has more than doubled, with over 400 involved in the event that took place on Jan. 29. Also attending was an array of local officials supporting the work being done. While the stations have been changed the more the group grows, this year’s event had four stations that all promoted a sense of community to all those involved.
The annual event begins with the children being divided into different groups with the idea that they would be paired with other children from different areas. Over the course of the day, they went to a station to pack hygiene kits for the homeless, as well as a second hygiene kit that they took to a second station where they also stuffed a stuffed animal and added a coloring book, activity book, a journal and a deck of cards – all of this was put into a duffel bag that was going to children in foster care and at domestic violence shelters.
The event also included a station where children were able to make blankets that were sent to seniors at New Bridge Medical Center and Project Linus. These blankets were also made in part by volunteers so that the kids could do more of the knot-tying. An additional station was for children to make activity kits for kids receiving cancer treatments. There was also a place to make dog toys for dogs in the animal shelter.
The most important station, however, according to Zur, there was a conversation station, where licensed clinical social workers, counselors and child psychologists were on standby to help promote and encourage conversations between children and have them talk to someone different than them.
Zur noted the students involved started off nervous, as they were separated from the people they knew at the start, but, by the end, they were able to make new friends and feel proud of the philanthropy they were involved in.
“The whole point of this is the next generation has to learn that this vitriol we’re seeing in our public discourse is not what we’re about,” she said. “It’s not how we build community; we build community by realizing our commonalities, and we’re all about helping our neighbors and we all have the power to be a positive force. These kids took a freezing day and used it to give warmth and light to other people. It was just a really beautiful thing. We want people to see our diversity is our strength and to realize also they have the ability to be impactful and be part of the change we need to see in our community.”
The event featured sponsors such as BCB Bank, Bergen County Community College and Kenneth Cole, as well as many others who were willing to help make the event such a success. Key players in making the event happen though also included the board, which includes 10 members, and the teen volunteers who helped guide the groups through each station. Outreach and reaching out to the different religious and cultural communities, said Zur, were crucial in helping the event grow.
“I was really pleased this year because we’ve doubled since last year, and I think that’s a result of not only increased outreach, but honestly results that people in the community are feeling that need,” said Zur. “As we’re seeing more and more bitterness come out of the media out of Washington, people are feeling a need to connect more so their kid to be part of the solution not just voices of negativity. This is my idea of how to pay things forward into a better direction. It was bringing people together to accomplish something impactful for our kids and how we teach them to internalize the values of not just Martin Luther King Jr., but also the values that are so intrinsic to our community to care for each other so this my reaction, and we’ve been able to pull together an amazing board and donors and members of the corporate community to help support it.”
We the People looks to add more events for this coming year, but the group is excited to see how it can grow and expand. More information on We the People and how to register or volunteer can be found at https://www.wethepeople-eee.com.
“Our mission is to bring people – most importantly our children – together,” Zur said. “I think there’s this illusion that there’s not a real need; there is. There are seniors that their only contact is someone bringing them Meals on Wheels; there’s people who are going through addiction or are victims of domestic violence or going through other challenges, and for our kids to understand that and be sensitive to that, and, more importantly, understand they can help, they can be part of what moves things in a positive direction is important.”
By Tara DeLorenzo