By Stefanie Jackson – A young man who just received his associate degree from Eastern Shore Community College was the keynote speaker at the third annual Kids Count forum at the ESCC Workforce Development Center May 22.
Accomack and Northampton are low-ranking for children’s quality of life of children. The two counties respectively rank 125th and 128th in child well-being, out of 133 Virginia localities, Kids Count coordinator Roberta Newman said.
The forum, sponsored by local businesses like PNC Bank and its Grow Up Great program, is an opportunity for members of the community to get together and share ideas on how to improve the well-being of the Eastern Shore’s children.
Keynote speaker Bobby Harmon, the recent ESCC graduate, is not too far removed from the coming-of-age phase of his life and offered a fresh perspective on what it will take to convince young people to stay on the Shore to start their own careers and families.
Harmon was born in Norfolk, but his grandparents on both sides of his family, who helped raise him, were from the Eastern Shore.
His mother came from a middle-class family and his father’s family were farmers, so he had a “full view of life” in his early years.
Harmon benefited from the “hands-on upbringing” allowed by the slower pace of life on the Eastern Shore. His family lived and grew here for generations, so he had a wide “support system.”
“I believe that’s what keeps the children going, because a support system gives them a reason to live,” Harmon said.
In Norfolk, he noticed that “everybody in the city has their own space,” but on the Shore, people of different races and backgrounds “mix a little bit better because of the interdependence” of the communities.
The time spent on the rural Eastern Shore filled Harmon with a “sense of freedom.”
But Harmon has noticed that many of the “hangout spots” in the Shore’s communities have disappeared.
He remembered roller skating at the Dream roller rink in Wattsville with his cousins every Saturday and going to pool halls in Cheapside with his grandfather.
He believes many of the old hangouts were lost when they changed hands from one generation to another.
Another hangout was the Roosevelt Inn, in Eastville. Harmon’s grandfather ran the establishment and “a lot of people gave him things and looked out for him, made sure his family ate … it was the relationships … that helped the community essentially get by.”
The Eastern Shore’s middle class was created by entrepreneurs who knew how to network, Harmon said. That “independent spirit” is what drew him back to the Shore to inspire the next generation.
“We have to push the new generation forward,” Harmon said. He has met Northampton High School students who feel discouraged by the lack of opportunities on the Shore and can’t wait “to get out of this place.”
“If they’re waiting to live their life when they get 18 and get off the Shore, that’s a big problem.”
Harmon said young people need more opportunities on the Shore other than Perdue and minimum wage jobs.
“I hear older people, they say, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with y’all younger people, y’all don’t want to work.’ No, we’re not working for $7.25, because now that you have educated them … they know they need more money than that to live out here.”
He described how his grandmother worked at a shirt factory and gained abilities that benefited her outside the workplace. The sewing skills she learned enabled her to earn extra income making dresses and alterations.
“We have to start giving these children a trade,” Harmon said – and more options. His parents left the Shore because there were few options. They came back because they have “a lot of pride in the community … and a long history here.”
“We have to create a better environment,” because in “a bad environment, people make bad decisions,” Harmon said.
One part of that environment is the public school system. Closing Northampton Middle School and moving the middle-school population into Northampton High School created a problem, Harmon said, because the transition from middle to high school was lost and kids get “left behind.”
That’s why he assists in as many youth activities as he can. “I’m fixing myself to be a role model for the next generation … because they need leaders.”
“The kids, even though they can’t do many things for themselves, they’re very smart, and they notice … when the community is not cared about,” he said. When kids don’t feel accepted in the community, their confidence and performance suffer.
“If you don’t have the right mindset, you’re not going to put in the right effort,” Harmon said.
Harmon is currently a library assistant at the Cape Charles Memorial Library, and he enjoys teaching kids how to play chess.
He worked as a docent and archivist for the Cape Charles Museum and Historical Society. Harmon is a board member of the Cape Charles Rosenwald School Restoration Initiative and encourages kids to connect with their past through genealogy.
He has assisted with Northampton County Public Schools field trips and 4-H programs.
That’s how opportunities are created. “You get involved within your community and you serve some type of purpose to the people,” Harmon said.
“Even if it works, still fix it, because it can always be better.”