An article about Hampton Roads Children of the Sun
Making better places
Ask Abdul Aswad how many kids he has, and he pauses.
Let's start with biological. Two, a grown son and daughter, and three grandchildren.
Now the real tallying starts.
"Currently I have 15 that come and go from around the neighborhood," Aswad said. Add in those who participate in the youth program he helped found, and the number grows to the hundreds.
Last week, WHRO public radio honored that charity, Children of the Sun, with a Community Impact Award for Regionalism.
Children of the Sun provides athletic activities, mentoring and job training, and along the way offers disguised lessons in teamwork, discipline, respect, work ethic and pride.
Aswad absorbed those teachings from his parents. His mother, now 83 (Editor's note - Aswad's mother has passed away since this article was written), continues her lifelong community activism, serving as a block captain for Green Hill Farms off Tidewater Drive. He adopted his father's ability to connect with his neighbors and the flock of his Baptist church, where he was a minister.
Seventeen kids joined that first year, in 1984. By the next year 50 had signed up. In three years, Aswad had several boys and girls teams. Now, Children of the Sun hosts an annual youth conference of 500 kids or more.
Aswad deflects credit for the group's success and points to a host of other community organizations that have helped him and Children of the Sun.
While he studied for a master's degree in urban affairs, he spent an internship interviewing prisoners. "I asked them what they would do differently if they could do it over again. They wanted someone to listen."
"So what I do is try to listen."
"We're living in a time where we have a tough generation of young people," he said. "They're smart, but they are using it in the wrong way." Some kids wear gang colors, others use slurs. "I ask them to research it before they accept that it's OK."
He wants America's children to catch up to the rest of the world's children. He is working on a book called "How Not to Leave Our Children Behind."
"The first thing you have to do is not center things around yourself," Aswad said. "You have to think of the community's interests, the community's needs."
Gwendolyn Lee-Lomax, a retired teacher, earned the education award for her Chrome after-school club program. She worked in public schools for 35 years and said she loves it so much she would do it for free. Shirley Devan, a Virginia Master Naturalist, won the environment award for her volunteer work in monitoring and surveying beach and marsh nesting birds, as well as her support of other wildlife groups. The health and public safety award went to Dr. Barry Strasnick, for his work in providing support and resources through the Coalition for Hearing, Education and Research, for people with disorders of the ear, hearing and balance. At the Southeastern Virginia Training Center, a home for people with severe mental disabilities, residents have come to depend on Diane Stephen's inventiveness. She created art programs and a daily "Coffee Corner" designed to promote social interaction. Stephen won the award for social justice.
None of the winners set out to change the world. But each saw a need and tried to address it. It turned out that's what changed their worlds for the better. One person, willing to help another.
"Don't just do what's expected of you," Stephen said her father told her. "Do more."
Their recipe for making better places of where we live and where we work seems so simple.
Listen. Do more.
Michelle Washington is an editorial writer for The Virginian-Pilot. Email: