Tribute to Mr. Charles Peterson: SUPERhero!
The shoes were unfit for child usage, literally falling apart at the seams. You could see J.D.’s sockless feet every time he lifted and dropped them. I remember. His head rested on his chest in shame, as the children lined up for the Campfire after school program.
Yet, those shoes were all he had. We were in Fairview, mid-90s. At the tender age of seven, this little boy was receiving a PhD course in poverty. I could only imagine how the other children had ridiculed him all day.
Mr. Charles, as we called him, was the Site Director for the Fairview Recreational Center Campfire after school program. This was his second job. During the day he served as Rec Center staff under the Municipality of Anchorage. While I never saw Mr. Charles attend one church service in the 16 years that I knew him, he practiced his faith better than those who maintain regular service. While others just commented about how sad it was to see the little boy, Mr. Charles was moved into action.
“Kokayi, walk the children to the rec center. I will meet you there,” Mr. Charles said. Then, he pulled the little boy out of line and asked him some questions.
True to his word, Mr. Charles met us at the rec center. He pulled the boy to the side and handed him a box. In the box was a new pair of shoes. A second pair was cradled in a box under Mr. Charles arm.
“Do they fit?” Mr. Charles asked.
“Yes, Mr. Charles,” the boy said.
“Now, throw those other shoes away,” he ordered. The boy did so with glee. “You tell your parents I bought these for you. And, no, you did not ask me. If they got a problem with it tell them to come see me.”
Mr. Charles’ face was stern. The little boy’s face was joyful.
“Where is your sister?” Mr. Charles asked. Apparently, the second pair of shoes was for her.
That is the Mr. Charles E. Peterson that I remember. At this time, I was a green – very angry – college student fresh from the Million Man March. Then, and now, my enthusiasm was infectious. My genius was evident. I just lacked direction for my talents. How Mr. Charles address social problems in a practical manner made an impression upon me.
From the rec center’s front desk, Mr. Charles held court. Throughout the day, various members of the community would come see him to discuss politics or neighborhood gossip. As a former army drill sergeant, Mr. Charles was rich in experience, which he valued as an education second to the one I was receiving at college.
The amount of petty cash Campfire gave Mr. Charles to purchase games and activity materials wasn’t enough in his mind to give the children an experience-based education that he valued. So, he did what superheroes do: he got a third job.
Back then, the Fairview Campfire did not charge a fee, like the organization does in its School District sites. Fairview parents were either on welfare or employed at minimum wage jobs. No one had any money.
In this poverty zone – one man, Mr. Charles – made sure the children were exposed to the latest board games, educational-manipulatives, books, music, movies and field trips. Our site became a “Harlem School Zone” for 75 children. The entire neighborhood wanted to be in our program!
For accomplishing this feat, newspaper and television reporters visited us often. Interestingly this angered Mr. Charles. “They think our children are stupid,” he would bellow. And, he was right. It appeared the rest of Anchorage believed little to no genius existed in Fairview. All the articles and newscasts framed our site as an exception to the rule. They believed poverty made you stupid.
That is not how Mr. Charles saw Fairview children.
From Mr. Charles I learned that most of the time, it wasn’t a governmental program, city study or non-profit event that people in poverty zones needed to access the American dream. What they needed was an opportunity to do so. Mr. Charles helped create that opportunity by simply reaching into his pocket – usually after an 18 hour work day.
On April 23, 2011, this hardworking superhero died.
I am going to miss you, Mr. Charles. Right now, I got 19.5 million children to feed. I don’t have the money in my pocket, however, as soon as it comes, I will erect the only monument appropriate for your legacy: a youth development center. Until then, I will use your name to inspire America to give its youth – ALL OF THEM – an opportunity to spark their genius.
Peace Mr. Charles.