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Norwich – More than 100 people gathered at the Norwich Free Academy cafeteria this afternoon for the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual birthday luncheon and to celebrate successes of a new generation of leaders embodied in two honorees.
“Our future looks bright,” said event emcee Tarishia Martin, referring to keynote speaker and 2013 Martin Luther King Scholarship winner Motyat “Tia” Olatunmbi, a senior at NFA, and youth service award recipient Lillian Cook, 19, a 2012 NFA graduate.
Cook, recipient of the Robertsine Duncan Memorial youth service award, led off today’s program with a dance performance to the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Going On?”
At age 18 last June, Cook defied the odds and opened her own dance company, The Lion’s Den Dance Co. in New London. The company has 16 dancers who already have won competitions. Cook thanked her parents, NFA teachers and past dance coaches who both encouraged her and “told me to shut up.”
Olatunmbi took on the event’s theme “Forgive, Never Forget” with an emotional speech revealing her own struggles with pain, anger and forgiveness.
Nov. 26, 2009, was Thanksgiving, and Olatunmbi was happy to receive a phone call from her father in Chicago. Until she took the phone and learned her brother, Ibrahim Olatunmbi, 21, had just died of complications from his medications.
After thinking of all the good times they had shared going to movies and to McDonald’s and Burger King, Olatunmbi went from a strong pain of grief she refused to express to anger at herself “for being such a terrible sister.” Her anger hurt her other relationships and that made her even more angry, she said.
“It took three years to finally forgive myself for losing Ibrahim,” she said. “I realized that the effect of all that anger could have ruined my life. Not only that, but life is too short to have to carry that anger with you.”
Olatunmbi turned from her personal story to those of famous figures who also faced pain, persecution and anger – King and recently deceased South African President Nelson Mandela. Recalling how powerful their messages of forgiveness, peace and equality rang throughout the world, Olatunmbi urged her peers to put aside anger and excuses over past discrimination and ill treatment.
“We struggled to gain the strength to fight, and now must struggle to find the strength to forgive,” Olatunmbi said. “It is our calling. It is our responsibility, not as blacks and whites, but as Americans.”