NAACP gathering focuses on the needs of African American children

For the second year in a row, the theme of annual fundraising dinner of the Hilton Head Island and Bluffton branch of the NAACP begged the question: "And how are the children?"

It is a question that might not have an answer, branch vice president Joey Maddox said Saturday night at the group's Freedom Fund dinner at Sun City'sPinckney Hall.

"Asking the question forces us as adults, as educators, as parents, to step up and ask ourselves what we are doing to help grow our children," Maddox said.

In that vein, the Keeper of the Flame awards portion of the dinner was intended to inspire the young to become involved in social justice, community health and education issues, he said.

This year, the branch recognized two retired teachers,Phoebe Driessen and Odessa Simmons, with its youth advocacy award. The two taught in local schools for more than 30 years and remain involved in church and children's programs.

Beaufort County Board of Education Chairman Fred Washington Jr. received the educational excellence award.

LowCountry Legal Aid, Inc., and its co-founder, Keri Ann Jordan Olivetti, received the social justice award.

Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, Inc., and chief executive officer Roland Gardner received the Thomas C. Barnwell Jr. public health award.

The overall theme was seen and heard throughout the evening as children and teens from St. John Baptist Church of Hilton Head Island and Greater Temple Pentecostal Church in Jasper County provided the music and entertainment.

As for the question that brought more than 100 together Saturday night, keynote speaker Vashti Washington had an answer.

"They could be better," the superintendent of the Jasper County School District said.

Vashti Washington devoted much of her speech to the needs of African American students she says aren't being met in schools or communities.

She extolled the importance of raising each children to become a reader, and she challenged small groups -- similar in size to the number of people sitting each of the more than 30 tables -- to buy a book for every new and expectant mother in their churches or communities.

She decried the lack learning about history and said children need to understand where they come from and the struggle that got them there.

She also stressed the importance of holding public schools accountable for improving performance and ensuring that each child receives a quality education.

"It is the black community's responsibility to observe what is happening in our schools," she said.