Jon Howell was born and raised in Youngstown. He and his wife Adrienne split their time between Ohio and Illinois. Jon was the leading force behind Advancing Education Reducing Crime Day. In the photo above, Youngstown State University journalism student Gabby Fellows interviews Jon about the event in the library at McGuffey Elementary School.

In October of 2016, shortly after my wife Adrienne and I had completed Operation Paint Brush, our Youngstown-based project to paint the home exteriors of four income-eligible homeowners — one on each side of town, we sat in our living room in Illinois and considered what we should do next to help Youngstown, our town. I asked myself what areas we should target to improve the city and after reflecting, we both thought the areas of education and crime were the two priorities that we meaningfully wanted to address in some way.

We formulated a rough outline of a proposed partnership and shared the concept with YCSD CEO Krish Mohip and his wife, who enthusiastically encouraged our vision. Next, we shared it with Judge Theresa Dellick of The Mahoning County Juvenile Justice Center, who was also encouraging and pledged to help the partnership. We conferred with Judge Anthony D’Apolito and Rev. Rolando Rojas who were also affirming, and we began to build a coalition of difference makers who emulated servant leadership and truly cared about Youngstown’s children. Most notably, Youngstown Mayor John McNally pledged his support for the project and followed through with excellent guidance and counsel, sharing his event-planning staffer with us. On the day of the event, the Mayor wore one of our yellow, vibrant shirts as he made the rounds to various host school sites as a celebrity reader.

Holly Welsh, an acquaintance of mine who is a former Youngstown educator and now works in the Warren City Schools, put us in contact early on with Penny Wells of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past. Penny taught in The Youngstown Schools for 30 years and is still investing in Youngstown students through the Sojourn Program. I also sought out Maria Cougras Pappas, a former Administrator who has her own distinguished track record in Youngstown City Schools. Penny and Maria had worked together previously and had great respect for one another, so we were off. They became the pivotal partners and community servants in planning and executing Advancing Education – Reducing Crime Day. The time they invested was a testament to their work ethic, second only to their problem-solving skills and their passionate advocacy for Youngstown’s children.

Krish Mohip immediately set the tone of cooperation in the school district and assigned his Chief Operating Officer, Joe Nohra, and his leadership team to help work out the details. Much work was being done but it was all coordinated through the many 3 way calls late into the night with Penny, Maria and myself, and the meetings in the school district convened by Joe Nohra and attended by them while I called in. Along the way, a host of other partners, celebrity readers and sponsors joined our coalition as it grew to include Mahoning County — its Board of County Commissioners, its County ESC Superintendent, and other select school administrators and students from Boardman, Canfield, etc. We had key people in the community serving on our committee and others who heard about our effort and who contacted me directly to help – Insurance agents, Pastors, businessmen, The Kiwanis and the Rotary Club. Community reading and presentations by the Police, Firemen, JJC, and Sandy Hook Promise engaged the children in a full day that also included essay writing contests, free haircuts provided by the Barbers in the city, and the arts. There was something for everyone. The day culminated in a Peace March for participants to symbolically take back the streets. Young and old, they marched with signs and chants at all 4 sites, led by a spirit of hope and goodness.

When the day finally came, seeing the faces of the children and their parents as they dined together, gathered books, wrote their stories, and won nooks and new bicycles, made it all memorable and worthwhile. We believe that our efforts illustrated to the children and the families that they were of value to us, that they were capable of making good choices — and that they matter. Everyone needs to feel that they matter, especially the disadvantaged. We hope that they realize that we were lifting them up. We hope that is the feeling that the day inspired, and that each child and family member in attendance realized that advancing education and creating safe neighborhoods is pivotal to the future of our children and our city, the city we so love, The City of YOU.