The area around West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey after dark is an intimidating place. Gun and gang violence is a constant threat and the school was seeing the effects of it in their own student body. That’s when principal, Akbar Cook, decided to do something about it. He created a Friday night program for kids in his school.
The school was seeing kids die to gun violence and decided to do something about it.
Newark, New Jersey is not the safest of places to be in the evening hours. Many of the kids attending West Side High School come from poverty-stricken families. The neighborhoods are rough and often unsafe.
During the first week at the school, Principal Cook dealt with the death of two of his students. One was killed because she was pregnant, another by a stray bullet. They were seeing kids in the school committing crimes and getting into trouble. Gang violence is a constant threat and the school staff knew that the time when crime was the most prevalent was from 6:00 pm to 11:00 pm. So Principal Cook and his school staff along with volunteers decided to do something about it.
The created Lights On, a Friday night program offering a safe haven for the kids during the evening hours.
The love that the principal and the staff shares for the kids in this school is overwhelming. Principal Cook calls them “his babies”, showing the care and concern that he has for their wellbeing.
“When it all gets down to it, we’re saving lives. What better place to change the world but in the schools?” says principal Cook.
While many schools across the country have their lights on during the overnight hours, they decided to name the program “Lights On” meaning the building was filled with loving people. The kids are provided with a safe place to go to which allows them to forget the harsh realities of life, even if for a little while.
The children are provided a good meal like chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese. They have video games and sports and even volunteers help the girls with their makeup and nails.
The program is making a difference.
Many of the teachers are past students who graduated from the school and want to give back. Having lost many of their own friends due to the violence, they want to help the students work through problems and give them a safe place to just be kids.
Principal Cook sums his approach up wisely, “These kids can’t wait on the policies to change. You have to be the change you would like to see.”
Since news about the program started to spread, Akbar Cook has been featured on The Ellen Show and Oprah Winfrey even came to the school visit. The positive impact that the school is making is drawing national attention and for good reason. Since the program started three years ago, they have not lost one student to gun violence. They are out there making a positive change in the world.
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