Manatee, Palmetto community leaders recognized at annual MLK banquet

ejohnson@bradenton.comJanuary 19, 2013 

MANATEE -- Manatee County residents gathered Friday night in their Sunday best for the recognition of several community members for their dedication and commitment to cultural diversity at the 20th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Banquet at the Palmetto Youth Center.

"A lot of people in the immediate community know what we offer here and how good of a job we do," said Chris Lukowiak, executive director of the center. "But they don't know about these people coming in and helping us on a daily basis. These people are in the background, so once a year we like to shine a light on these folks."

People enjoyed their dinners over conversation and entertainment with Jordan Sanders performing several musical selections in addition to Alex Kumar and Nathalie Kabongo-Chavez reciting their contest-winning essays on the topic of race.

Before moving into the

awards portion of the night, Judge Charles Williams took the chance to remember Sen. Edgar H. Price Jr. -- a politician, businessman and war hero who died earlier this year.

"We lost one of the greatest people to ever grace this area," Williams said. "The best word that describes Sen. Price is what we named an award for him -- humanitarian."

The award memorializes Price, who walked the streets of Palmetto with Charles Smith in 1990 after he was elected the first black city councilman.

This year Smith, now Ward 1 commissioner for Palmetto, won the Edgar H. Price Jr. Humanitarian Award.

"A lot of you got me here," Smith said. "A lot of you supported me. A lot of you encouraged me. A lot of you pray for me. A lot of you said 'don't give up.' A lot of you said, 'Run, Charles, run.'

"Until God gives up on you, you're still in the fight. Don't allow anyone to tell you you can't do it."

Smith is actively involved with fundraising efforts at the youth center and formerly served as executive director and board member.

"Some would call him an activist in the community," Lukowiak said. "Part of his most recent political endeavors include helping to get us a new facility by requesting grant funding."

Shirley Pearson, who operates the Mount Carmel Community Resource Center, received the Louise Rogers Johnson Humanitarian Award.

"Not only does she provide food to the homeless and people not doing well financially, but she also has GED and ESL classes," Lukowiak said. "She's just a high-energy person that took this upon herself. She just went out there and started asking for good and began getting it into the hands of those who need it. She's helping the parents of these kids."

Joe and Veronica Forney of Kojak's Rib House were selected as recipients of the Small Business Owner Award. The restaurant partners with Kiwanis Club on a quarterly basis to host a blues festival, from which proceeds are donated to the youth center.

"They always give back," Lukowiak said. "For being a good community partner, we felt we should acknowledge them."

Members of the Manatee County SMART Team were given the Outstanding Citizenship Awards. The group of Erie Angersoll, Travis Green, Gary Phillips, Christopher Spriggs and James Turner decided to provide a day of service to the youth center in August, launching a monthslong project.

"These are a bunch of wonderful guys who are worker bees that came here for a day and saw the ills we had here," Lukowiak said. "They replaced doors, built stairs, revamped our handicap ramps, helped with flooring. The list goes on and on."

Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen received the Government Award. Gallen stops by the youth center often to check on the operation and find assistance when needed.

"Manatee County just recently gave us the land we've been leasing. He was instrumental in that," Lukowiak said. "He's been in our corner. He's trying to do a lot in this community and we need it. He has not run from his responsibilities. He's embraced us."

Lukowiak said all winners were surprised and honored to be selected.

"They don't do it because they want recognition. That's not their motivation," Lukowiak said of the winners. "It's the one time of year we can say these folks are taking their spare time, spare dollars and influence to help us to serve kids every day. We couldn't do it without folks like this."

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.

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