‘I was there at the funeral home, lost my seat, and ended up sitting the back when the young people came in,” says Stacey Heading, a deacon of True Servant Church. He is talking about coming to a Trenton funeral home to speak at a service for a young victim of a Trenton shooting. “I then saw their anger,” he says.
Heading had seen that same anger before, when visiting another young shooting victim’s family, and “watched young people come in the house, hug the mother, and say, ‘We’ve got him, and we’ll take care of everything.’”
“This is why there are killings,” says Heading. “Because all (these young Trenton men) know is revenge. It’s all about revenge. So I changed what I was going to say (at the service) and said, ‘We need healing.’”
A decade later Heading is still saying it and with the help of others attempting to make a difference with Heal the City, a volunteer group developed in partnership with the SEED Male Mentoring program run through the EE Jenkins Ministries.
During an interview in the conference room of True Servant Church, the church founded by Jenkins in the South Broad Street area where Trenton and Hamilton Township merge, Heading talks about the founding of the group and its projects, including the Trenton arrival of an Off-Broadway show that recreates the experience of Americans with African ancestry.
“I joined True Servant Church and started working with the men’s group here,” says Heading, a married father of three. “My pastor, Jenkins, had a vision of doing something for the elderly and the youth. I began working with the youth and we started the SEED Male Mentoring program.”
SEED stands for Servants Endeavoring to Empower and Develop. The project uses exposure to positive environments and activities to encourage young men to excel and succeed, and develop spiritual growth, confidence, leadership qualities, and cooperation skills, and encourage reaching for higher educational endeavors.
“The mentoring program started out of this church. Since I am a Trenton native I wanted to bring it out into the community — some people do not want to deal with church,” says Heading, the son of a single mother who supported her family by driving a New Jersey Transit bus.
The initial project was in 2008 and involved a group of young men, ages 10 to 17, who volunteered at a Trenton home for seniors. The plan, Heading says, was for “young people to do something for the elderly, and for the elderly see that young people care.”
But, Heading says, everyone got something more: Seniors brought history alive by telling the young about their experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, and an unexpected financial gift enabled the group to host its first Martin Luther King Day breakfast — an event that recognized some community “heroes” and featured young men presenting talks about King.
“It was a success. The young men felt confident. Parents were happy and engaged. The people honored felt positive,” says Heading.
Then there was another positive development: the involvement of Trenton teacher and stage actor Ivey Avery. “(She) attended a breakfast, and she saw me working with the kids on their presentation. She came in and asked if she could work with the young men.”
Heading credits Avery with strengthening the young men’s stage presence and delivery. Now, he adds, the event is “celebrated by the way our young men do their dramatic presentations.”
Heading has also begun bringing an annual full-length play to the Trenton War Memorial. Selections have included “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” (about the first American black air fighters during World War II) and last year’s “Kings of Harlem,” the true story of the first all-black basketball team, the Harlem Rens.
The idea came from Heading’s experiences at work and by taking a few chances. “I am a full-time employee at Isles Youth Institute (on Tucker Street in Trenton). I am the evening program coordinator. My job is to provide young people life skills after school during a time when (crime is heavy). I provide a safe environment for young people 16 to 24 years old. Some of these kids are ex-gang members. We’re dealing with poverty, with substance abuse. My job is to provide them with life sills to hold down a job and stay out of the streets.
“One of the things we do is go to an Off-Broadway show in New York. I expose kids to things they may never have known. Every year we would see something like ‘Black Angels,’ and we would meet the actors. That started our relationship with Layon Gray, the writer and producer.” His “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” is in its seventh year at St. Luke’s Theater in New York City.
Heading says he started talking about bringing a play to Trenton, and after Gray gave him a doable budget, the Trenton deacon and the New York producer set up a meeting to see the New Jersey State Museum auditorium. It was then that museum facility representative William Nutter mentioned the War Memorial Ball Room — and its flexible seating and small stage — as another possible venue.
Heading says Gray found his way to the main stage and became awed by the space’s technical abilities and elegance and suggested using the main auditorium. “I said, ‘I didn’t think I could get that many people,’” Heading says, referring to the of the theater’s 1,800 seats. But Gray encouraged him to try.
Heading reached out to Trenton-born National Football League cornerback Troy Vincent, who agreed to help if Heading would be able to involve Trenton Central High School.
Heading — a Trenton High graduate and former Homecoming King — took the challenge, went to the school, and eventually worked out an arrangement that involved both athletes and “kids on the cusp who get in trouble” and helped secure the show. “We did a show at Trenton high during the day and the War Memorial at night. We had over 900 people in the theater. When I stepped on the stage I said, ‘Trenton, we did it!’”
That “we” includes other groups, such as A Better Way, UIH, Mercer County Community College, local fraternities and sororities, and, in addition to Heading and Avery, team members Solomon F. Dinkins III, entrepreneur; Ayo M. Johnson-Richardson, community volunteer; Corey McCoy, photographer; Donelle M. Presha, SEED founding member; C. Roman, a Dress for Success volunteer; Amini Sababu, Serenity Garden founder and CEO of Positive Black Images Connect; and Gail Taliaferro, a children’s book writer and founder of the transition assistance program Essence of Talia.
This year’s show — set for Saturday, May 6, at the War Memorial — is Gray’s “The Girls of Summer,” a drama involving an all-Negro female baseball team preparing to go against the all-white female champions of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Heading says another project developed when “Ivey said let’s put out positive billboards. As my school’s evening coordinator, I learned that if you give attention to those who are doing negative things, the other kids will start falling off. So we said let’s take young men and women who are doing the right thing — going to college — and put them on the billboards.”
The group raised money — roughly $750 for one sign — and did its first unveiling on the corner of Stuyvesant Avenue and Prospect Street. “We took a picture of young men having a conversation, but they’re wearing suits and jackets and we noted what college they’re attending.
“Young people were out there looking at it and asking “How did you get there (to college)?’ Then we did one for young women going to college and put it across from P.J. Hill School. We had accomplished our goal and put one in each ward. That started Heal the City.” Today they have 12 billboards.
Continuing the effort has it challenges, says the former Devry University student who currently lives outside Trenton. A main concern is that young Trenton men “think it is not cool to get education. There is also a negative mindset with drugs and gangs. Poverty pays a major part. Everything becomes focused on getting that belly filled. There’s a lack of love and an education system with kids who can’t read.”
Another problem is “raising money and going to the same people. I have a cluster of four or five people. My challenge is raising money and getting different funding.”
Then stopping and reflecting, Heading says, “My slogan, is this: ‘First you have to care.’ When you care there are so many different things you can do.”
Heal the City presents “The Girls of Summer,” Saturday, May 6, 7 p.m. Trenton War Memorial, Memorial Way, Trenton. Tickets are $30 general admission, first come first serve seating, For information visit healthecitytrenton.org or contact Stacy Heading at (267) 528-5782 or Ivey Avery at (609) 372 8999. For group sales of 20 or more tickets, contact Donelle Presha, (609) 933-1393 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To volunteer, donate, or participate in a Heal the City project, go to healthecitytrenton.org.