State honors Ashton Burrell for community leadership

It’s easy to feel inspired around Ashton Burrell; he radiates energy like Orpheus did music.

He still seems surprised that people call him a leader, but it’s clear that the only one still surprised by this is himself. Only 22 years old, he’s the founder of the nonprofit Life in Vision of Evolution, a mentorship program intended to broaden the horizons of area teens. And just three months ago, when he organized a local march against police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., more than 200 people turned out to participate.

On Nov. 12,  the state of New Jersey honored Mr. Burrell’s past contributions and his potential for contributions in the future. That’s when Mr. Burrell was appointed to a one-year term on the advisory board to the state’s Human Relations Council.

He’s enjoying the responsibility of being a role model, but in conversation it’s evident he still is amazed by the quirks of life.

“If somebody had told me I’d be doing this when I was in high school,. I would have said, ‘Ah, it’s just what they tell ever other kid,’” he said. “In high school, I was always the kid who was the class clown.”

In one incident he is particularly fond of recalling, he had been cutting up and causing so much disruption that the teacher finally threatened to call his mother. A teen at the time, Mr. Burrell called his teacher’s bluff, only to find his mother standing outside the classroom a short time later.

“She comes into the classroom, and goes, ‘Let’s go, right now,’ ” he recalled, and shook his head. “The boys in the (LIVE mentorship) program, they fall down laughing when they heat that story. I never cut up again.”

The turnaround moment came his sophomore year in high school, when he got the chance to visit Ireland with the People to People Student Ambassador program. It was not only the cross-cultural experience that was transformational; but also the fund-raising experience of raising the money to make the trip. He had to write letters and ask people and organizations for their support.

“Next thing you know, my trip’s paid for,” he said. At that moment, he had an epiphany – he got to see that people actually believed in him.’”

He began LIVE in 2011, during his sophomore year at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa. On Thursdays he would drive two hours from school to Highland Park in order to meet with local teens.

Only recently out of high school himself, he still shared cultural touchstones like music with the high school students he was reaching out to, though at first it didn’t seem like that was going to make a difference.

“First night, one kid showed up,” said Mr. Burrell. He was discouraged, but his mother pushed him to keep at it, and the initially dismal response began to improve. “They started coming. One turned into two. Two turned into four. Four turned into six. Six turned into 14. I got something here.”

In the three years LIVE has been in existence, it has taken area students on trips to Philadelphia, and benefited the area community. LIVE has staged charity basketball games to collect canned goods, and has sent volunteers to the Ronald McDonald House in New Brunswick, which provides families with a place to stay when they have traveled to the city for pediatric medical care.

“That was one of my favorite moments in the program,” said Mr. Burrell. “We took some kids to the Ronald McDonald House and cooked for some of the sick families. These are some of the kids that people consider ‘bad’ or ‘troubled,’ and they’re the ones cooking at the Ronald McDonald House.”

As a member of the advisory council, Mr. Burrell is only one voice among many, and as one of the youngest members on the council there is no guarantee that his voice will carry.

But for all that, there are things he’d love to see the council make priorities: the relationship between police and the communities they serve; a renewed excitement about education; and of course increased voter turnout and participation in democracy at the local level.

“I want to work on getting the black families, getting the minority families out,” said Mr. Burrell. “I want them out for the kids. I want them to see what’s going on in their communities.”

In the end, voter involvement in the Borough Council and the Board of Education can only mean good things for Highland Park, and for the children who live here. And for Mr. Burrell, that’s what it is all about.

“These kids need help,” he said, “and I’m going to help them, as many as I can.”

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