The married “community hero” duo, Elder Ronald John and Minister Colleen John, smile in the park on Wednesday. Photo: Ella Napack
Last year, the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant honored over 20 everyday heroes who have helped the neighborhood thrive. A year later, on August 3, the community gathered again to listen to each featured “community hero” speak as the project drew to a close.
The year-long public art installation, “Community Heroes,” wrapped up Wednesday at St. Andrew’s Playground in Bed-Stuy. Large banners featured the local leaders of the Bed-Stuy community – dubbed “Community Heroes” – with artwork by local artist Yen accompanying each banner.
The Partnerships for Parks (PfP) Catalyst Program is a long-term community development program, working in historically underserved New York City parks. PfP Catalyst partnered with Photoville, a Brooklyn-based organization that works to amplify visual storytellers by activating public spaces, to create this project.
The cooperation of these organizations has resulted in an exciting storytelling celebrating the life and work of Bed-Stuy’s heroes. The public art project allowed local creatives, youth and community members to celebrate residents who have dedicated their time to strengthening the neighborhood.
Each “community hero” received a commemorative banner which was hung on a wall surrounding St. Andrew’s Playground. An artwork from artist Yen’s vibrant and abstract painting series titled “Secret Heroes” was displayed on the other side of the banner.
“Community Hero” Wilma Maynard drew a crowd as she sat in front of her banner and spoke about her experiences. Ms. Maynard is a lifelong Bed-Stuy resident and was an important figure in the community for decades before being honored as a ‘Community Hero’. “
Ms Maynard told the group a story from her time as PTA President for PS 93, when 2 children attending the school were tragically killed by a vehicle at Marcy Avenue and Fulton Street. She gathered a group of parents and teachers, and they protested at the intersection. A traffic light was installed just days after Ms Maynard decided to fix the problem.
“Nothing is solved if you don’t speak up,” Ms. Maynard said.
Ms. Maynard explained to a crowd of eager listeners that much of the work has not been easy and takes cooperation and perseverance. She explained that you can’t let your pride keep you from doing a good job, especially when the going gets tough. “You can’t be too proud to do what needs to be done,” Ms. Maynard said.
Ms. Maynard focused on improving the condition of the St. Andrews playground at the center of the community. She, along with many others who attended the event on Wednesday, formed FOSAP, the Friends of St. Andrews Playground organization, in 2017.
Ms. Maynard explained that the park is worth protecting and that she will continue to fight for its improvement with FOSAP. “This park is a landmark for me,” Ms. Maynard said.
One of his 5 children, Helena Crump, is also a founding member of FOSAP and was also honored as a “Community Hero” last year. “We’ve lived in this neighborhood forever, just around the corner,” Crump said. “I’m still here 66 years later.”
“My brothers and cousins used to organize activities and trips from this park,” Crump explained. “It’s amazing to see the kids I looked after in the neighborhood growing up with their own kids here.” Crump is now dedicated to helping the park get the repairs and care it needs to remain a center of community life through FOSAP.
Married duo Elder Ronald John and minister Colleen John were also honored as ‘community heroes’ in the installation for their work with the Faith of Assemblies of God church. Their church becomes a kitchen and pantry every Saturday from October to June, where they feed about 400 families each week.
The program was started more than 35 years ago by founder Gwendolyn Haynes, but over the past decade Pastor Ronald John and his wife Minister Colleen John have built the Bed-Stuy Community Pantry. The two have come up with a system that allows people to choose what they need when it’s their turn, from a wide selection of fresh groceries, canned foods and hot meals.
“We don’t impose anything on anyone, we let them decide what they need,” said Pastor Ronald John. “It’s well organized”
The two have been married for 33 years and have been dedicated to community work all their lives. Although the last few years of the pandemic have been difficult, their food pantry has helped the community through tough times as a reliable resource.
“We don’t turn anyone away no matter what you look like where you’re from. And we don’t look down on anyone, everyone is served,” Pastor Ronald John said.
Minister Colleen John explained that there’s a reason people travel from all over the metro area to use their pantry. The hundreds of families who show up at Faith of Assemblies of God Church on Saturday come from as far away as Staten Island and New Jersey.
“I think the reason we make such a difference is that we tell our volunteers to listen,” said Minister Colleen John. “We don’t know anyone’s story; we have never walked in their place. We never want anyone to feel like they’re begging for something. So we treat everyone with a smile, even when it can be difficult. »
Pastor Ronald John explained that they operate with a mindset of selflessness and service, using the phrase “we come to serve, not to be served.”
The couple enjoyed the “Community Heroes” honor, but they aren’t focused on the recognition they get for their work. “If you’re doing it for recognition, then your whole purpose of doing it is wrong,” Pastor Ronald John said.
“Community Hero” Antoine Cassidy grew up in Bed-Stuy and now gives back to the community that raised him through the No Gun Smoke School Tour Inc., a non-profit organization that helps community members fight the gun violence through programs in schools and correctional centers.
Cassidy’s journey down a path of community involvement began when he was young, although he encountered a few bumps in the road. “I always wanted to work and do good things, but it took me a while to get on the right track,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy explained that in college he started seeing a lot of people he knew selling drugs and making money on the streets. “I’ve always wanted to hang out with the big boys, and once I started hitting the streets with my uncles and family, that’s when the real big boy stuff started.”
Cassidy dropped out of school in 10th grade to sell drugs. “I was always describing something my uncles taught me, they were my role models back then.”
“I started being able to buy my own medicine and really make money,” Cassidy said. “That’s when I started rounding up young boys in the neighborhood who looked up to me and started giving them drugs to sell.”
Cassidy’s business grew bigger and bigger, and eventually law enforcement caught up with him. Cassidy spent time in Sing Sing and Ogdensburg correctional facilities, where her perspective changed. “It took me away from my family and the crime I was committing,” Cassidy said.
“I came back and wanted to make a real change,” he said. “I wanted to prevent gun violence in my community.”
Cassidy recognized the lack of resources available to stop gun violence, drug trafficking, and violence against women in Bed-Stuy, so he developed No Gun Smoke School Tour Inc.
Cassidy has worked with thousands of students and community members through the Rikers Island Department of Corrections and numerous schools such as Eagle Academy, Life Academy High School, PS 5, and PS 308.”J ‘brings a lot of different resources to schools,” Cassidy explained. “We bring boxing, music development and studios, art therapy, fabric design and reintegration mentoring.”
“It’s about being proactive and not reactive, stopping kids before they go down the wrong path,” Cassidy explained.
The event ended on Wednesday when each “community hero” took home their large banner that had proudly lined the walls of the St. Andrews playground all year. Even without the banners, the Bed-Stuy community is aware and grateful for the work of its inspiring neighbors.