BROCKTON — Ollie Jay Spears was 16 and trying to find himself when he hit a crossroad in his life.
“I was heading down the wrong path,” he said. Drugs, gangs. “There was a fork in the road.”
He was either going to go to jail or work to empower his Brockton community.
He decided to make a positive change.
Spears, now 39, received an award Saturday created in honor of 74-year-old Lee Harmon, a minister, grandfather, and prominent resident of Brockton who was beaten to death with a hammer last August. The Lee Harmon UNITY in Community Service Award was presented to Spears and others for their work in the neighborhoods during a peace march and festival.
“I was able to change my life,” he said. “I do it because I want to make a positive change in the community.”
Braving the rain, more than 100 people watched Spears and others receive the award at the second annual Peace March and Unity Festival, organized to stand up against violence in the city.
“The rate of violent crime in our city is intolerable,” said Lary Boyd, a coordinator for the event. “Vandalism, break-ins, and home invasions continue to threaten our neighborhoods, and we ask ourselves, what is something that we can do to fight back?
“Now, we take a stand against violence and petty crimes,” Boyd said to the crowd before the march. “We are a city of champions. We must embody the value that ensures good will always prevail over evil.”
In a driving rain, the marchers, many wearing green unity shirts, some bearing names of loved ones killed, strode through the streets of downtown Brockton, chanting for peace, before returning to the Arnone Elementary School on Belmont Street, where they had begun.
“Peace in the community does not take a rain delay,” said Jacob Tagger, one of the founders of the event as he looked over the drenched crowd and smiled.
“It’s more powerful with people still showing up in this weather,” he said.
Coordinators stressed that meeting people in the community was one of the festival’s biggest goals.
“We want it to be more than just a place that people live,” said coordinator Milton Strumpf, 45, of Brockton. “We want it to be a place where you have neighbors, where you know people around you. And that’s what this is all about. Making friendships, making relationships, getting people together.”
Lee Harmon (with his wife, Francise), a minister, grandfather, and prominent resident of Brockton, was beaten to death last August.
The Lee Harmon UNITY in Community Service Award was presented after the march to several active members in Brockton. Harmon’s widow, Francise, helped present the awards.
Francise Harmon, 73, said she was happy to see her husband have an award dedicated in his name. She wore a shirt bearing her husband’s photo.
“He’d want to see the kids growing up and get a good education and get a job. Don’t be hanging around the streets, don’t be doing drugs,” she said of her late husband.
Brockton police officer Nancy Leedberg, 40, who has served as an officer in the city for 19 years, was given one of the awards.
“This actually started as a project,” she said. “It was a group of citizens committed to cleaning up the city. They go around and clean different neighborhoods up, they use their own tools, their own time, they’re not getting paid. But they are getting paid because they love what they do and the community loves them. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”
“These are the doers,” she said. “If you have to talk about peace today, you’re preaching to the choir. They’re living it. They’re breathing it.”
After the awards, musicians took the stage and attendees ate and mingled as the aim of the rally rang loud and clear from Boyd’s speech before the march.
“We must keep spreading the word in our neighborhoods and keep each other informed,” he said. “We must persist that we lend a helping hand when someone reaches for one. These are just some of the things we must do to strengthen the bonds in our city.
“It’s time to take back our streets.”Derek J. Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.