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'They are young leaders' - Elgin MLK celebrations inspire the city's youth

Image of Martin Luther King Jr. quote
Suzy Brooks - Unsplash.com
Image of Martin Luther King Jr. quote

Volunteers in a northern Illinois city use Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations to foster community, through the youth, that expands beyond the holiday.

Three King events are taking place in Elgin, Illinois this weekend - A prayer breakfast, a documentary screening, and a food drive.

The city has a Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration committee, which is led by volunteers.

Joe Wars is the chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. food drive this year. He moved to Elgin in 1976. He said the city has celebrated MLK for over 30 years. It became a federal holiday in 1986. Wars said the events have evolved over the decades.

“We had a gospel fest, we had youth competition, as far as art. We've had just a basically, youth programs,” Wars explained. “And all of these things were started simply because we felt the need to get the youth involved.”

Wars explained that after a while the youth celebrations dwindled down because technology sped up. He said children were learning about King at school and weren’t interested in learning about such things on their time off. Because of this, the committee switched things up.

Danise Habun is a co-chair of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration committee. She said it’s important for young people to connect the present with the past.

“One of the really great things that has kind of stuck around as we do our Dr. King celebrations is the fact that we offer scholarships to area youth,” she said. “And this year, I've just, you know, I think we're just like, astounded. We're going to give out 12 scholarships.”

The scholarships range from $500 to one $1000.

Wars and Habun said the Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations ignited an ongoing desire to lead for the some of the city’s youth.

“And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you know, Danise started getting phone calls, I got phone calls,” Wars said. “Janice started getting phone calls saying, ‘Hey, can I help with this? Can I work on this?’ you know, and it's just a marvelous thing.’”

Janice Hare is also a co-chair of the committee. She said partners like the YWCA and Boys & Girls Club of Elgin have given community youth skills that allow them to play key roles in the Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations.

“These young people are inspiring. They are young leaders,” she said. “And we'd love to always have them do something productive to whereas they can put [things] in their portfolio and go on in their lives and their careers and build themselves.”

Hare has a personal testimony of what these celebrations can set into motion. She said her son was going down the wrong path.

“People like Joe in the community helped shape him to continue to grow and fester,” Hare explained. “And although he you know, didn't do the high school, or graduated high school at the right time, but he went on to get his GED.”

The 39-year-old now owns a barbershop in the community.

Wars said it’s important to introduce Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy to young people because they don’t have the same experience as their elders.

“It was just like yesterday that I can remember watching and having the dogs turned on us and water hoses and, and the whole nine yards,” Wars recalled. “But you take a 12-year-old kid now, and for them, something happened in 1957, man, that sounds like way, way, way, way back.”

The celebrations begin at 8:30 Jan. 14 at Elgin Community College. The city will host the 38th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast Celebration. Scholarship and humanitarian recipients will be honored at this time. The Illinois premiere of the documentary “Invented Before You Were Born” will screen from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. at Larkin High School on Jan. 15. Those interested in donating to the Food Drive can do so at the city’s website.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.
Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.