What about the children? How are the children doing?

Those were the refrains during the 5th annual Charles Hamilton Houston Institute Awards Luncheon Aug. 10 at the Sheraton in Madison.

Dr. John Y. Odom, the founder and president of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute here in Madison, wanted each person in attendance to turn to their neighbor and ask those words. Those words were the heart of the occasion.

People performing good works on every level of the black and brown communities of Madison were present at the event designed to both provide information on just how the children are doing as well as give everyone involved the chance to meet other like-minded individuals.

“Ask your neighbor, ask them how the children are doing,” Dr. Odom implored the crowd on the microphone. “The answer should provide some level of hope.”

Hope has been a tricky thing around the community these days, especially where the youngest among us are concerned. Schools seem underfunded, people of color seem underrepresented on school boards and in school decision making. Some have lost faith in the boards, committees, and councils that govern the lives of children and, thereby, parents.

Charles Hamilton Houston

But one of the speakers at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute fundraiser and banquet, Camara Stovall, saw things differently. As the first African-American man to teach kindergarten in this city, Stovall sees the work he and others do diligently on behalf of communities of color. He also sits on the Board of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute.

“I was reading someone at [Madison]365 last week or earlier this week and they were saying that there’s too many boards and there’s not people doing what they need to do,” Stovall said. “But this is one of the boards that’s very important for the community. I feel like the boards are very important because it brings the like minds together to work on common goals.”

Stovall said that 4k and Kindergarten are key ages to build a solid foundation in the lives of children.

“Reaching children at young ages is our goal,” he said. “That’s why we do our 4k and our kindergarten programs. It all starts there.”

Few, if any, in attendance or anywhere else for that matter, inspire hope like the keynote speaker Dr. Linda Michele Baron. Dr. Baron, a poet and lifelong educator in New York City, is all about inspiring kids to hope and dream.

Dr. Baron’s book, The Sun Is On, an aptly titled book of poetry, teaches children to resolve conflicts appropriately as well as providing kids with fun exercises aimed at developing their self-esteem.

Keynote speaker Dr. Linda Michele Baron (left) with Lisha Terre at the 5th annual Charles Hamilton Houston Institute Awards Luncheon.

Dr. Baron has reached countless children with her energetic disposition, twisting, turning, slick way with words and her passion for love. But as she took the podium to address the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute crowd, she couldn’t help but reflect on the one child she couldn’t reach. The one she wanted to reach more than any other: Her nephew.

She wrote poems for him, showed him love and kindness. But like many of the children the community at the CHHI event are trying to reach, he went the other way. He chose to be in the streets, to misbehave, to get himself locked in prison and break her heart.

Dr. Baron grew serious as she addressed the audience. How could she convey a message of hope to everyone else when in her own life this had happened? It was because he had heard her all along. Even at the height of his struggles, deep down inside he still remembered every hug, every poem, every encouragement, every bad joke and, probably, especially the booming laugh of Dr. Baron.

He turned his life around and became the living embodiment of the things she wrote prose about. As if he wasn’t already, Dr. Baron pointed out.

Dr. Baron’s message resonates. “No matter how big and mean our children seem or even become, they still need us,” she said. “They still want guidance. They still want love. They still want hope.”

She told the audience that one kid came up to her and said he wished his teachers were more like her. Had more energy. Had more flair. Had more, well, fun!

“We’ve got to give our children some life,” Dr. Baron said. “Use the arts, use lyrics in their music. We don’t get much from them because we don’t expect much. Our job is to make sure our children make it. As a young person, you need to feel empowered.”

The 5th annual Charles Hamilton Houston Institute Awards Luncheon was also a time to honor outstanding Madison-area community members including Linda Allen, Charlestine Daniel, Will Green, Neil Heinen, Michelle Heitzinger, Ed Manuel, Ed and Tina Murray, and Johnny Winston Jr. who were all recipients of the Charles Hamilton Houston President’s Awards recognizing their work in education, fellowship and economic development.

Honorees Michelle Heitzinger and Johnny Winston Jr. celebrate at the 5th annual Charles Hamilton Houston Institute Luncheon.

“Mentoring African-American youth in the community is pretty major for me,” said Green, who’s organization Mentoring Positives continues to grow and provide a solid foundation in the Darbo-Worthington area despite not having the kind of funding and city support many other organizations do. “Dr. Odom, I hope he understands what he does for the community. This event is minority-based, it’s a lot of our elders here. I grew up listening to my elders. I think this conversation today, this presentation was so important. Because it was like ‘how are the youth doing?’ and that’s really how I feel about this work. I think it’s so important. We gotta let our kids be who they are and exceed the boundaries of judging them. Because they’re beautiful individuals if we just provide the platform to let them be who they are.”

The ripple effect of Dr. Odom’s work was staggering to see. Many of the individuals being honored were people Dr. Odom had directly worked with and encouraged to get an education.

“Dr. Odom told me to go to school, get my education, work full time during it if I had to,” said honoree Johnny Winston, Division Chief, Organization & Community Liaison for the Madison Fire Department and a longtime firefighter in Madison. “So, now, I do that for other young black men and women. I say get that education, do the work and doors will open.”

Neil Heinen has worked closely with Dr. Odom as well. Heinen was being recognized for using his platform on television, radio and in print to illustrate the issues facing communities of color.

“This means so much to me in large part because Dr. Odom has been a friend for many, many years and he has guided me in a number of ways,” said Heinen. “The work of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute is filling a need in the community. The leadership academy component of it and the focus on kids in education, I think we struggle to provide that at scale but I think the more people know about that work and are aware of it, it’s important.”

At the end of the banquet, Dr. Odom himself was recognized. Dr. Odom was celebrated by the rest of the board for his uncompromising expectations for himself and the others in his organizations as well as for his vision in improving the lives of children.

Written by Nicholas Garton

Nicholas Garton

Nicholas Garton is a Madison365 graduate and a reporter for Madison365.