Manatee youth start ministry to save peers

MANATEE -- When youth, drugs and gangs meet head on, the resultant crash can quickly lead to another tragic statistic for Manatee County.

But it’s not just the families who suffer when a teen dies or is sent to jail. The peers of these lost youth are left scarred, wondering if they could have done something to prevent the crash.

“Too many to count,” is what Palmetto’s Diondric Cummings said this week when asked how many friends he has in jail.

About a month ago, five local youths decided they had seen enough senseless loss and wanted to try to do something about it.

Calling themselves, “Manatee County Community Youth Ministry,” the group, started by Palmetto High School graduate Jorad Holmes, believes it can stop the loss rate by getting kids back to church.

Besides Holmes, the four other charter members are Ederick Johnson, Alex Jackson, Jay Simmons and Cummings, all of Palmetto.

The ministry is hosting “The First Manatee County Community Concert,” 7-10 p.m. Friday at Spiritual House of Praise (SHOP) Ministries, 307 41st St. Blvd. E., Palmetto.

At the concert, which will feature many youth-oriented performances, people who want to help the ministry can join, Holmes said.

The concert will feature a performance by Greatness Beyond Measure, a Sarasota-based youth chorus with many local fans.

Christian rapper Henry “Nugget” Washington of Bradenton will also perform.

Singer Raymond Holmes from Lakeland, a member of Ricky Dillard & The New Generation Choir, will also be featured.

The ministry is also hosting a revival for youth at 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, 1700 First Ave. E., Palmetto.

“We are tired of seeing young people getting shot and killed,” the 22-year-old Holmes said this week. “We want to let youth know that being in a gang is not a correct way to go.”

Community Youth Ministry’s battle plan is to have revivals and concerts and have adult mentors available to meet teens to talk about things if they want.

Spiritual House of Praise is run by pastors Cory and Kim Brinson, who have deep roots in the youth community and also will serve as ministry mentors, Holmes said.

“We just want to tell them they can always find someone in a church to help them get on a better path,” Holmes said.

‘Too many to count’

Community Youth Ministry member Jay Simmons, 22, grew up attending Mount Raymond Full Gospel Church in Palmetto and hanging out with church friends, including Ta Heem Blake.

As a 9-year-old, Blake, who is now 19 and paralyzed and in prison for life for murdering Maria Lerna, was a “smart, charismatic, no-problem church kid,” Simmons said.

“Ta Heem was a youth usher,” said Simmons, who graduated from Palmetto High in 2007. “He was very involved in church.”

But something happened when Simmons and Blake both reached about age 14. Blake dropped out of church life. Simmons stayed in.

“I stayed, but I have always been that kind of person who loves church,” said Simmons, who is now a sophomore at St. Petersburg College.

Surely, Blake could have chosen a non-church path and produced positive results. He did play football for Palmetto High. But the path he eventually chose -- crime -- has devastated his life and the lives of others.

“Sometimes the path we choose is destructive,” Simmons said. “What helped me is that I had elders in my life and I listened to them. I learned that there is a consequence behind every choice we make. The consequence comes after the choice.

“My vision for this ministry is that we have to show our young people in Manatee County there is something out there besides going to jail,” Simmons added. “We need mentors to stretch a hand out.”

Community Youth Ministry member Cummings, a 2009 Palmetto High graduate, is angry that so many of his friends are dead or in jail.

“I lost Julius Brown and Ledarious Watkins,” Cummings said referring to two recent deaths. “I lost Trey Murray in a dirt-bike wreck. A lot are in jail; in fact, too many to count.”

Cummings, like Simmons, credits his church, Faith Temple Church of God and Christ in Palmetto off Canal Road, with keeping him out of trouble. He’s attended there since he was 9.

“I’m not a judge of my friends to say they did this or that wrong,” Cummings said. “But all I would offer is that it can make a difference in our lives if we carefully choose the peers we put ourselves around.”

The Rev. Roland Oliver of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Palmetto is the lead mentor for the new ministry. For information, call 799-0974.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.