Tuesday morning study hall in Dickinson High School’s auditorium on Dec. 18 took on the feel of a night club, as girls danced in the aisles — and school officials let them.
A DJ from HOT 97 FM radio spun discs to tunes that had many of the students up on their feet, and those who weren’t dancing, sang along. But this wasn’t a party. With hip hop music blaring from the stage, the event was a culmination of a semester-long reading assignment.
Students from throughout the Jersey City school district participated in an essay contest, writing about their life experiences and how the book, “From Federal Prison to First Lady” by Mt. Olive Baptist Church First Lady Tamika McReynolds inspired them.
In July 2007, McReynolds, known then as Tamika Riley, was indicted on charges related to her romantic involvement with the legendary former Mayor Sharpe James of Newark. She served more than 9 months federal prison.
The book is about her experiences and her ability to overcome. While serving her time, she started to help other incarcerated women transition back into society.
Currently the wife of a Jersey City minister, McReynolds had hoped to use her story as a vehicle to personal healing through writing. But the project matured into a manuscript of lessons learned.
The book is about her journey from growing up in the inner city to becoming a successful entrepreneur, and about her involvement with the powerful mayor of Newark and the consequences that followed.
From prison to the boardroom
McReynolds currently serves as a board member of Care Point Health Care, as well as state Sen. Sandra Cunningham’s Woman’s Advisory Group, and she spearheads several other annual initiatives throughout the city.
“You have to do things for yourself; friends will come and go, but you’ll always be with yourself.” – Esther Suarez
Hundreds of students got the chance to write about how the book inspired them.
As a result, three students won prizes for their essays. 1st place went to to Darinka Arones of Liberty High School, who won $1,000; 2nd place to Zahria Thomas of Dickinson High School, $500; and 3rd place to Jasmere Gillis of Lincoln High School, $250. The awards were funded by the Rev. John H. McReynolds, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church.
The students were three of more than 200 who participated in the contest, which entailed writing about their life experiences and how McReynolds, Mount Olive Baptist Church’s “first lady” and mentoring chief of Jersey City’s Department of Recreation youth opportunity, inspired them.
The contest is part of the teen mentoring program run by the city, its public schools and Mount Olive Baptist Church, that helps educate local high school students on careers in the healthcare industry and health in their community.
Earlier this year, Christ Hospital partnered with the Mayor’s Office/Department of Recreation, Jersey City Public Schools and Mt. Olive Baptist Church on a pilot initiative teen mentoring program that will help educate Jersey City high school students on careers in the healthcare industry and expose them to healthcare in their community.
The students learned about areas of healthcare such as infection control, surgical services, environmental services, emergency services and general patient experience.
“It is great to see so many Jersey City students engaged in the … program, and they were eager to share their life experiences through the essay contest,” said Mayor Steve Fulop in statement. “The partnership with Christ Hospital and the Department of Recreation has created a great program to provide hands-on experience for our city’s youth as they continue to grow and prepare for their bright futures.”
Some student reactions
Diane (no last name given), a student from Liberty High School, said she was curious when she first started to read the book, and wondered how McReynolds wound up in prison in the first place.
“But reading about her experiences was an eye opener for me,” Diane said. “I was surprised about all the people who betrayed her and others that gave up on her.”
Sonya Brown, of Dickinson, said she read the book over two days unable to put it down.
“I was surprised about all her fake friends, and the painful battle she had,” Brown said. “You just don’t know what is going to happen in your life.”
Viola Stevens, also of Dickinson, called it a book about redemption.
“This is about learning who your real friends are and doing the right thing,” Stevens said.
On stage was literally a who’s who of local and state dignitaries including Mayor Fulop, State Senator Cunningham, Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, Jersey City Police Mike Kelly, Marie Duffy, Chief Hospital Executive of Christ Hospital and others.
Calling herself “a little girl from Bayonne,” Suarez advised the assembly of girl students to stay focused.
“You have to do things for yourself; friends will come and go, but you’ll always be with yourself,” she said.
She encouraged them to keep reading.
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