It was a night to recognize the unsung heroes of Monmouth County, while raising money to support the students who may one day take their place.
The 31st annual Wilbur Ray Scholarship Dinner, held March 11 at the Sheraton Eatontown hotel, honored eight local professionals, community leaders, volunteers and activists for their often unheralded work in towns such as Neptune Township, Asbury Park, Freehold, Manalapan and Red Bank.
This year’s honorees included: Rhonda Anderson, president and CEO of the Community YMCA in Red Bank; Yvette Anderson, social insurance specialist at the Social Security Administration in Neptune; Rev. Dr. Andre McGuire, senior pastor at the New Beginnings Agape Christian Center in Freehold; Rev. Tommy Miles, pastor at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Neptune; Bishop Fred Rubin, pastor of Community Refuge Church in Manalapan; Reverend Frederick Smith, pastor of Old Ship Of Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Monroe Township; Dr. Jerard Terrell, principal of the Summerfield Elementary School in Neptune City; and Sergeant Risheem Whitten, Brookdale Community College police officer.
Full bios for each honoree are available here.
More than 150 attended the annual dinner, with proceeds supporting the Wilbur Ray Scholarship Program, which supports students of color at Brookdale. The scholarship program and the gala are named in honor of the late Wilbur Ray, former Brookdale police sergeant and an active volunteer in the Long Branch community.
Ray’s daughter Catherine Hamlin joined his son-in-law Jerome and grandson Tyrone to kick off the event and thank the evening’s honorees for their selfless acts of service and leadership.
“I know my dad is looking down and saying, ‘Well done,'” Hamlin said.
Those sentiments were echoed by a wide range of local and state dignitaries, including Brookdale President Dr. Maureen Murphy, Brookdale Board of Trustees members Henry Cram and Francis Bret Kaufman, and N.J. Assemblywoman Joann Downey, who presented each of the honorees with an official commendation on behalf of the general assembly. Freeholder John Curley presented a similar commendation on behalf of Monmouth County.
“The Board of Chosen Freeholders salutes every single one of you for making our world a better place,” Curley said. “Always remember: Give back. Wilbur Ray did that, and that’s what you’re doing by being here this evening.”
The awards presentations began with Brookdale’s own Risheem Whitten, who was recognized for his 11 years of service as one of Brookdale’s most beloved campus police officers and his 24 years of service with New Destiny Family Worship Center in North Brunswick, where he continues to serve as minister.
Introduced by his wife Julienne, Whitten spoke passionately about the importance of positivity and the need for community members to lift each other up, rather than tear each other down. Gripping a small orange sponge, Whitten said that all individuals are free to “soak up” whatever feelings and beliefs they choose.
“So let’s choose not be filled with hatred, racism or division,” he said. “Let’s be filled with love, equality, and add value to each other’s lives. So when the pressures of life squeeze us, we will be better people for each other. Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
The evening was filled with similarly moving acceptance speeches, from Rev. Tommy Miles’s emotional recollection of being the first in his family to attend college – and the sacrifices his parents made to send him there – to Yvette Anderson’s long list of inspirational figures, which included family, friends and, coincidentally, three of the evening’s honorees: Reverend Frederick Smith, Dr. Jerard Terrell, and Bishop Fred Rubin.
“I thank each of you from the bottom of my heart for your love, your support, your dedication, and unwavering ability to make me feel like there is nothing I can’t do,” Anderson said.
The evening also featured a presentation by assistant Brookdale professor Fidel Wilson, who last month hosted the second annual Minority Male Initiative conference at Brookdale in partnership with the Monmouth/Ocean County Pan Hellenic Council. The conference, like the Wilbur Ray Dinner, was designed to increase support for students of color at Brookdale.
Wilson was joined by current and incoming Brookdale students Jeffrey Reed, Malachi Brown, and Anthony Araujos, each of whom will receive scholarships this year as part of the Minority Male Initiative program.
According to many of the evening’s honorees, including 2016 Wilbur Ray award winner Rhonda Anderson, scholarships and academic support are one the most effective ways for community members to “pay it forward” and ensure that the leaders of tomorrow can start working toward their dreams today.
“Education really is the great equalizer to eradicating poverty. That’s what it does,” said Anderson, a graduate of Cornell and Penn State universities. “My grandmother only had a sixth grade education, but she had a a PhD in life, and she had a PhD in common sense. What she always shared with us is that you have to get your education, because it’s something they can never take away from you.
“So it’s important that we come together as individuals, as private corporations, as nonprofit organizations, and make an investment in our future,” Anderson added. “Our students are that future.”
The Wilbur Ray Scholarship Dinner was hosted by Mary Scott, chair of the Wilbur Ray Scholarship Dinner Committee, with an invocation by Rev. Henry P. Davis Jr. The Wilbur Ray Memorial Scholarships, administered by the Brookdale Foundation, support five eligible Brookdale students each year. To learn more about available Brookdale scholarships, click here.
Check out more photos from the 31st annual Wilbur Ray Scholarship Dinner here.