23 May 19
Actor Anthony Anderson, left welcomes NBA basketball player De’Aaron Fox, as he prepares to speak at the youth summit. (Chris Riley–Times-Herald)
Dr. Adam Clark knew better. He was asked to step up and talk at Thursday’s Kaiser Permanente Empower Youth Summit at the Solano County Fairgrounds’ Expo Hall.
He saw the list of celebrity speakers and politely declined, choosing to join the audience of around 800 Vallejo eighth graders.
“I deferred to the professionals. I’m not crazy,” Clark said. “I don’t want to get up there and talk about test scores.”
Indeed. What the middle school students did hear were inspiring stories and motivational encouragement from various stars of the entertainment of athletic world, including actor and producer Anthony Anderson and 19-year-old Marcus Scribner of “Black-ish,” De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings, recording artist Jessie Funk, performance painter David Garibaldi, Aric Jackson, R&B artist Danileigh, Blake Brendes of My Life Online, and Brian Williams, who destroyed a stack of bricks with one punch.
Also appearing — returning to the city he grew up in and still calls home — former wrestling great and MMA fighter Mark Munoz.
“In eighth grade, I was at the crossroads of my life,” Munoz, 41, said. “I could have gone one chaotic way or another way. Fortunately, I chose another way.”
Munoz had his “friends community, family community and church community” to lean on.
“I just hope the kids understand that everything they decide to do, the choices they make, shapes and molds them of who they can become,” Munoz said, adding that as a Vallejoan talking to Vallejo teens, “They can see ‘He’s from Vallejo, so I can be like that.’ That’s what I want to resonate in their hearts. I grew up on the streets. I’m from here.”
Anderson, an Emmy-nominated performer and a Black Image Award-honored actor, played played host of the summit, joyfully bantering with the attentive teenagers.
“Education is the key,” he said. “You need to take it and own it. Make a change and make your mark. Dream big. Your dreams should scare you. If your dreams don’t scare you, are not dreaming big enough.”
“Never be in competition with the person next to you,” Anderson said later. “Compete with yourself. That is how you will make a difference. Never compare yourself to the person next to you. You don’t know their journey. Celebrate them because your time will come next.”
Scribner was 13 when he was cast as Anderson’s son in “Black-ish.” He easily remembers life as an eighth grader.
“Simpler times,” he said backstage. “Now, there’s bills, like I’m ‘adulting.’ I am a working man.”
Once incredibly shy, Scribner said he’s trying to do more events like the summit, happily sharing his story.
“The biggest thing I tell them is look for things to do. Search for your passion. It’s easy to grow complacent and lazy and go on Snapchat or play video games,” Scribner said. “The key is to always do something.”
Though Funk stepped on stage and impressed the students with her vocal ability, she holds a leadership certification from the University of Notre Dame and a degree in psychology as the executive director of the nonprofit organization, Ivy Girl Academy.
“Today was a blast,” she said after her talk. “I love events like this. Sometimes the kids are rowdy, but I was one of those kids. Even if they’re rowdy, there’s always something that’s going to get through.”
Funk remembered her eighth-grade years of cheerleading and soccer. But she was also “bullied pretty relentlessly” physically and verbally “and I became a bully which led to me getting suspended from school.”
By her fifth suspension, “my principal sent me to a leadership camp,” Funk said, now “paying it forward” by building a leadership came in the Utah mountains.
“Even not-fond memories can become part of what your’e going to become,” Funk said.
After 15 years delivering motivational talks — mostly to teenagers — “even if they’re acting like they’re not listening, they hear you,” Funk said.
Performance artist David Garibaldi — who waltzes around the stage to music with a brush in each hand to the canvas — displayed his talent between segments of inspiring words. Garibaldi squeezed in Thursday’s appearance during a break as opening act for the rock group KISS and a global farewell tour.
“I remember in middle school … I had an interest in art, but had no directions what to do with it,” said Garibaldi.
A high school animation instructor in Elk Grove inspired Garibaldi and a brilliant career that includes drawing for President Barack Obama was launched.
Garibaldi said “any new perspective that I got ” that Vallejo’s youth could get Thursday “can be life-changing because it changed the direction of my life.”
Garibaldi encouraged the students to find that passion and have a purpose “so every day they make decisions that lead them closer to fulfilling their passion.”
Clark said Thursday’s 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. event was the first time all Vallejo eighth graders were together to “give them a message of empowerment and a message of motivation and healthy choices. That was the goal today.”
For the students, it was a day to listen, get out of class and snag a free lunch.
“I feel like I have the ability to work harder,” said Dante Fratun, 13, of Hogan Middle School, adding that he appreciated “the guy who said to follow your dreams.”
As for Williams and breaking bricks with one hand, “that was crazy,” said Fratun, happy it wasn’t his job.
“I’d probably really hurt myself,” he said.
Dijeur Millard, 14, of Franklin Middle School, emerged with the message “stop trying to bring people down.”
It was all good, said Nor Jemjemian, senior vice president of sponsoring Kaiser-Permanente.
“I grew up in a very poor, under-served community where we didn’t have access to health or celebrities who would motivate you,” Jemjemian said. And if he did?
“I would be so inspired seeing how the dreams shared today that became reality. I would have been on a (positive) path much earlier, taking care of myself and focusing on my school work,” Jemjemian said.
Dr. Chris Walker, chief physician for Kaiser Napa-Solano, said the goal of the event was to reach the young people with something that is “good for their mind, body and spirit.”
Walker remembered how “hard it was; how difficult it was ” in eighth grade.
“The decisions I had to make about doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing,” Walker said. “I’m so glad I made the right decisions a lot of the time and that I was sometimes lucky. I was fortunate. I grew up where I had a lot of role models.”
Perhaps some of Thursday’s speakers became role models for some of Vallejo’s kids.
The goal, said school superintendent Clark, is to “send them off to high school with some tools in their box that they’re going to have to utilize to be successful in high school.”