SHREWSBURY, NJ – 2020 was filled with uncertainty and cancelled events near and far, but the YMCA of Greater Monmouth County is busy preparing for its annual community celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like so many other important events taking place during the coronavirus pandemic, the commemoration will be a live virtual event hosted on Zoom, Friday, Jan. 15.
For the second year in the 32-year history of the event, the Y will present its Martin Luther King Jr. Human Dignity Award to honor an individual who reflects Dr. King’s principles and ideals in philosophy and action. This year’s recipient is Gwendolyn Love, executive director of Lunch Break in Red Bank.
“Gwen is one of the most caring and compassionate individuals and leaders in our community and in the entire region. She has dedicated her career to help others find dignity and a sense of security in an insecure world. We are honored and humbled by her work and commitment,” said event chairman and Y board member Michael Wright.
Love has been at the helm of Lunch Break since 2008. She came to the organization after a storied career in community service and volunteer work. Under Love’s direction, Lunch Break serves 6,000 hot meals every month and more than 850 families receive groceries through the Client Choice pantry. Several thousand people receive clothes and needed household items. Through Lunch Break and its partner organizations, hundreds of children are given toys through the Holiday Toy Program.
Since Love took leadership, services at Lunch Break have been expanded to include a hot breakfast on Saturdays prepared by various churches. There are regular cooking classes for boys and girls and the hours of operation at the expanded facility have been extended to help serve more people in need. Meals to home-bound clients are delivered six days a week by volunteers, and Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas breakfast and Friday community dinners are provided for the community’s fellowship and enjoyment.
During the pandemic, grab-and-go meal services and grocery distributions have grown exponentially. Lunch Break did not miss a meal since the pandemic took hold in March 2020.
Love has made sure that Lunch Break continued its various outreach initiatives, such as the Food for Thought Male Mentorship Program, Women's Word Mentoring Program, and a Life Skills employment coaching program to provide clients with a pathway to self-sufficiency. Under Love, Lunch Break has evolved into one of the most vital social service agencies in Monmouth County and beyond.
Love has acknowledged the strong foundation of partnerships and support fostered by former director Norma Todd. She also credits the efforts of the thousands of volunteers and dedicated staff who work to ensure the efficient operation of Lunch Break which serves its clients “in an atmosphere of dignity and concern.”
“I am honored and humbled to be this year’s award recipient. It is Lunch Break’s mission to uphold Dr. King’s message of non-violence and equality. We treat everyone who walks through our doors with dignity, respect and compassion,” said Love upon hearing she was chosen as this year’s Dr. King award honoree.
Last year’s MLK Human Dignity Award recipient Wayne Boatwright, vice president of Diversity and Inclusion at Hackensack Meridian Health, will present the 2021 award to Love.
The MLK event will also highlight the two esteemed winners of the Dr. King student essay contest. Each high school student will share and read their winning essay during the program. Both students will receive a $1,500 scholarship sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey Natural Gas and PorterPlus Realty, as well as a full year membership to a YMCA of Greater Monmouth County branch of their choice.
The keynote speaker for the event will be Kerwin Webb, Youth and Young Adult pastor at Second Baptist Church in Asbury Park and president of the Greater Red Bank Area NAACP. Webb believes firmly in education, mentoring, training, and community development and in 2013, he founded the RMW Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit organization with a mission to “feed, educate and empower.”
Reverend Webb is from Birmingham, Alabama. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Alabama State University and a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is an education specialist for Interfaith Neighbors as well as liaison for the New Jersey Social Justice Remembrance Coalition. He is also a member of the board of directors for T. Thomas Fortune Foundation & Cultural Center and Centers for Black Excellence and a sacred sector fellow at The Center for Public Justice.
YMCA President and CEO Laurie Goganzer said, “The YMCA of Greater Monmouth County is ready to bring the community together to reflect upon Dr. King in the context of the current climate of social justice and other important issues facing our community, our country and the world.”
Goganzer and the event committee members hope the Dr. King commemoration and celebration will be a mass Zoom event with widespread community virtual participation.
“We look forward to this event and it is our hope that many people in our community will support and join in the virtual MLK commemoration. We are also grateful for the dedication and hard work of this year’s volunteer committee, who organized the event under current constraints and challenges,” Goganzer said.
In addition to Wright, Love and Boatwright, committee members are: Sue Harbison, HABcore; Thomas Hayes, New Jersey Natural Gas; Darryl Hughes, Hackensack Meridian Health; Rabbi Marc Kline, Monmouth Reform Temple; Pastor Jessica Naulty, United Methodist Church of Red Bank; Samara O’Neill, PorterPlus Realty; Gilda Rogers, T. Thomas Fortune House; and Reverend Ronald L. Sparks, Bethel AME Freehold.
The event will take place from 8 to 9 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 15. It is free and open to all. To register or to learn more, visit www.ymcanj.org/MLK.