Looking back on one of the most turbulent years in American history, the message at the 35th annual Plant City Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Breakfast was a call for understanding, compassion and unity.
The breakfast event, for which the theme was “Let Freedom Ring,” featured retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Dr. Cynthia Downing, who is the Commandant of Summerlin Academy in Bartow. Downing was the event’s keynote speaker and highlighted how major events of 2020 put a spotlight on ongoing civil rights issues in America and showed people how much work needs to be done to get to a point where all Americans can live the dream of having equality and unhindered opportunity. She advocated for empathy toward others and for staying true to faith in God for guidance.
“I served over 25 years and I was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice because I believe in this country,” Downing said. “We as a nation must continue to work to make this a better nation. America is the greatest country in the world… I feel confident that all that America’s going through, especially this past year, we will overcome because we are a loving nation that can unite in times of trouble.”
King was quoted often during the event and, as former Mayor John Dicks said, the man was passionate about making sure youths got a good education. Five Plant City-area students — Jaylen Wharton, Aryana Wright, Jack Brosky, Brendan Rollyson and Riley Buttorff — received $500 scholarships funded by the Dicks family and Wish Farms.
Five members of the Plant City community received “Community Champion” awards as well.
Tony Bernard Smith, an educator at Sligh Middle School, is well-known around town for his involvement with the M.A.T.E.S. community health initiative that gets people fit physically, mentally and spiritually on Saturday mornings. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to much of Plant City and the world shutting down, Bernard stepped up with iImpact PC and the Improvement League of Plant City and delivered nearly 100 hot meals, hygiene items and newspapers twice weekly to senior citizens who had to isolate away from their families. He is also known for hooking Plant City-area veterans up with barbecue on Veterans Day, advocating for residential area improvements and starting an “Xtreme Hip Hop” initiative. Though Bernard received an individual award, he immediately credited his community partners.
“I couldn’t do this without my team, Reginald Gray and Heaven Waddell,” Bernard said. “ They work with me — they do all the heavy lifting.”
Essie Dixon Lewis, who in 1973 became the first Black girl to make it onto the Florida Strawberry Festival Queen’s Court as First Maid, is a longtime educator and has dedicated her life to helping anyone in need, young or old, no matter how she can make a positive impact in their lives. She won the Headstart Parent of the Year award in 1984, the JCPenney Golden Rule Award in 1986, the Black Heritage Community Service Award in 2015 and was one of the Plant City Observer’s five Wonder Women of 2020. She is also heavily involved with the Girl Scouts of the Plant City area and the Order of the Eastern Star.
“When you’re doing things, don’t always think about yourself,” she said. “Think about others.”
Michelle Richardson, Student Success Coach at Marshall Middle Magnet School, has spent her 19-year career in education working tirelessly to keep students in school and engaged to have the best chance at success later in life. Richardson is plenty busy off campus between hosting tutoring sessions at her home, making home visits to help her students and making sure Marshall’s students get home safely after school ends each day. She is the school’s Black History Brain Bowl coach and hosts an after-school line dance across the street at the Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center for teachers.
“I took a pay cut to come to Marshall, and it’s been a blessing,” Richardson said. “I just love it and I’m glad to be able to receive this award.”
Danny McIntyre, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist, has given back to his hometown in many ways. McIntyre is a co-founder of the Future Career Academy, which started at Plant City High School and now helps high school seniors around Hillsborough County find post-grad career opportunities, as well as the iImpactPC organization that hosts community discussions to find solutions to local issues and gives back to the youth, as was the case when the group donated a basketball shooting training machine to the community center last year. He partnered iImpactPC with the Improvement League to donate meals to elderly residents last April through June during pandemic shutdowns and was also a platinum sponsor for the 150th anniversary celebration of Bealsville.
McIntyre’s acceptance speech, the longest of the bunch, featured a call to action that built off of Downing’s speech and encouraged more involvement in the community.
“We’ve decided to exclude ourselves from the process… we can’t complain about our current state if we do not engage,” McIntyre said. “We can’t get to full inclusiveness without engaging. You can impact P.C. by your actions and, believe it or not, by your inaction.”
Hampton George, a graduate of Marshall High School and a United States Army veteran, has dedicated the last 20 years toward making sure his fellow veterans are aware of and are able to receive benefits available to them — many of which are unknown to a great number of veterans, as federal, state and local opportunities are constantly changing. George currently spends every Wednesday at the Bing Rooming House Museum, 205 Allen St., counseling veterans and helping them get the benefits they’re entitled to, completely free of charge. Since he and the Bing House partnered up in October 2020, George has worked with close to 200 veterans.
“I’ve dedicated the last 20 years to help those vets with disability,” George said. “I’m a 100 percent disabled vet myself. I want to pass it on.”