Nehemiah Action Rally for Social Justice: Crowd Stresses Need for Services

March 23, 2015. The Lakeland Ledger.

LAKELAND | One word stood in the way of agreement Monday between State Attorney Jerry Hill and a 2,000-strong crowd at the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment’s 15th annual Nehemiah Action rally for social justice.

Hill said he would “encourage” but not “ensure” the use of Polk County Teen Court as an alternative to arrest for children who commit first-time minor offenses.

“I don’t know the demeanors, the attitudes,” of the offenders, he said. “I don’t know the crime.”

If they had said “encourage,” he said, he would have answered yes.

Instead, he said no.

PEACE officials substituted “encourage” in a surprise re-questioning of Hill at the end of the meeting.

His answer changed from “no” to “absolutely” and the crowd that had given cold silence to his original answer voiced its approval.

Twenty-one churches from around Polk County were listed as bringing members to the event held at The Lakeland Center’s Youkey Theatre, during which PEACE asked public officials for “yes” or “no” answers to questions aimed at them.

The officials had been told in advance what the questions would be and had a limited time to explain “no” answers.

The topics this year were continued action on youth arrests, city involvement in expanding primary health care in Bartow and Haines City, and a first foray into getting more mental health services.

PEACE succeeded in getting support on two of the three, but got more “no” answers than yeses on mental health.

They asked Polk County Commission Chairman George Lindsey and Commissioner John Hall whether they thought Polk has a mental health crisis and whether they would take various steps to find funds for additional intensive treatment teams for people with severe mental issues.

The commissioners’ answers highlighted an issue PEACE hasn’t addressed this year: Whether voters will support continuing the half-cent sales tax for indigent health care. PEACE leaders want more of that money spent on mental health.

PEACE has not committed to campaigning for continuing the tax, as it campaigned for its initial passage in 2004.

“If this fails, there will be no more program,” Lindsey said. “It’s imperative the half-cent sales tax pass.”

Lindsey agreed the county has a mental health crisis, while Hall would only agree it has a problem. Neither would agree to instruct the county manager to find funding for those teams, which PEACE said could come from reserves in the indigent-care fund.

Those reserves may be needed, Hall said, if voters turn down continuing the sales tax in 2016. If the referendum fails then, a second vote could be held in 2018.

Authorization for the tax ends in 2019 unless voters re-approve it. Reserves could let a scaled down version last into 2020 and possibly a third vote, Hall said.

That wasn’t the answer PEACE hoped for, but its leaders said they will keep working with commissioners.

Parents Stephen Schaffer, with his wife, Debbie, and Jackie Grant spoke sadly of how their children, diagnosed with serious mental health disorders, had to go outside the county for help.

“There is a mental health crisis in this community,” Schaffer said. “Something needs to change.”

Sheriff Grady Judd, who worked with PEACE on arrest alternatives for three years, got loud support when he agreed to set “high expectations” that law enforcement will use the Teen Court database that is being created to ensure more youths are diverted to that alternative court for first time, minor offenses. In Teen Court, juvenile offenders are punished but do not have an arrest record.

Haines City Mayor Roy Tyler and Bartow City Commissioner Leo Longworth had an easier time on the hot seat than the county commissioners who followed them.

Asked whether they would direct their city managers to provide detailed lists of vacant buildings owned by their cities, they agreed and said they’d already acted on it.

“I have the list,” Longworth said.

PEACE officials said they will keep working to find a way those buildings might be used for primary care clinics.

Although Haines City does have a free volunteer clinic and some free services through the Florida Department of Health, Martin Medina of St. Ann Catholic Church spoke somberly of the need for care he hears about from residents of that area.

“Some of these people over and over tell me they were denied to get health care services because ‘You don’t have insurance,'” he said.

“Some of you prefer not to go to the doctor because you cannot afford it. … Thank you for sharing with me,” Medina said. “I bring it up because it touched my heart.”

Increased access to transit in Polk County

Polk County — Many families in Polk County are transportation disadvantaged and cannot get to doctor’s appointments, jobs, and school events.  In parts of the county, taxi services charged extremely high rates to families that had limited transit options.  In 2013, PEACE urged Tom Phillips, Executive Director of Polk Transit to expand routes in underserved parts of the county. Two new bus stops were added to route 416 in Haines City in August 2013, including one at the health department clinic; since its founding, there have been over 70,000 rides. Route 32/33 S. Florida/Carter Road was converted to a flex service, which picks people up from their homes, serving those with physical limitations. Route 39 Bradley was also created as a Flex Service and began accepting riders in January 2014.

Winter Haven pastor works for social justice

May 5, 2014. The Lakeland Ledger.

WINTER HAVEN | Seeking justice is a cause the Rev. Clifton Dollison embraced long before he became a leader in the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment, a reform group of 19 local churches.

Facts

CLIFTON EUGENE DOLLISON

Born: March 27, 1957, in Muncie, Ind.

Family: Married since 1981 to wife, Valerie Bush Dollison; three adult children, Trista, Bradley and Austin.

Occupation: Pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church of Winter Haven for 22 years.

Other key activities: President of Interdenominational Ministerial Association of Polk County, co-chairman of the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment, senior chaplain at the Winter Haven Police Department, past president of Winter Haven chapter of the NAACP.

Education: Graduated Indiana State University in 1980 with bachelor’s degree in criminology, completed degree in theology in 1985 from Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

Hobbies: Painting, biking, riding motorcycles.

Favorite food: Pizza.

Worst Fault: Caring about something so much it’s hard to let go.

Pet Peeve: Smoking.

As a child, he wanted to be a lawyer. In college, he majored in criminology and almost became a police officer.

Instead of either career, however, Dollison found himself called to an unplanned path that brought him to Polk County from his home state of Indiana and lets him combine religious conviction with promoting social justice.

He went back to school, in this case a theological seminary, and he came to believe churches should work for justice in their communities.

“If you care about what happens to the people, you have to know what they are experiencing and the challenges they are facing,” said Dollison, 57, pastor of the First Missionary Baptist Church of Winter Haven for the past 22 years.

“We have to engage in the process of bringing about change and justice for those who have no voice.”

For Dollison, that philosophy is somewhat of a no-brainer, although not all pastors might agree.

He is co-chairman of PEACE, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Association of Polk County and a past president of Winter Haven’s NAACP chapter.

“From the early years of PEACE, he has been a very strong voice and face for the justice ministry that PEACE has been able to achieve,” said the Rev. Eileen Stone, who is active in PEACE’s efforts to improve health care access.

‘NATURAL LOVE’ FOR CHURCH

Clifton Eugene Dollison was born March 27, 1957, in Muncie, Ind., to Clifton Moore, a production supervisor, and Ora Dollison, who did domestic work and was a school library assistant.

He said he felt a “natural love” for the church as young as the age of 4.

He attended the Church of God in Christ, he said, and later joined the Baptist faith.

As a young man, he was shy and somewhat reserved, generally staying out of trouble, he said, adding:

“Not to suggest I was an angel by any means, but I did not have major issues with law enforcement.”

Attending Indiana State University, he met Valerie Bush of Bartow, appropriately enough in a gospel choir.

She remembers falling in love at first sight, impressed by his charm and drive.

His religious faith was another plus, she said, although his announcement he felt called to become a pastor soon after they got married in 1981 caught her off guard.

She had fought off attempts by family members to pair her off with unattached young ministers, so his desire to become one became an early test for the young couple.

“Ministry is not something you particularly choose,” Dollison said when asked why he took that career path.

“It’s a compelling feeling you have. It’s something you must do … It’s a feeling that will not relent.”

As he got support in becoming a minister from the Rev. Ceytus Malone of Second Baptist Church of Terre Haute, Ind., the pastor’s wife, Silver, assured Valerie Dollison she could remain her own person while married to a preacher.

Valerie Dollison said he’s supported her in raising their three children, now adults, and in her 22 years with Mid-Florida Credit Union, where she is a vice president.

Clifton Dollison was quiet when she met him, his wife said, recalling a family member who asked her if he ever talked.

His transformation to a talkative, outgoing preacher is one of his biggest changes in their almost 33 years of marriage.

Taking classes part time, Dollison earned a degree in theology in 1985 from Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

While pastor of Prince of Peace Church in Terre Haute, with a congregation of 75 to 100 people, he also was a civilian labor relations specialist for the U.S. Navy.

After several years, fate or God, with an assist from his late father-in-law, Willie Bush, brought him to the First Missionary Baptist Church.

The church needed a pastor and Bush, then a deacon at Mount Gilboa Baptist in Bartow, sent in Dollison’s résumé. He preached his first sermon as First Missionary’s new pastor on Easter Sunday 1992.

“He’s awfully young,” long-time member Celestine Roberts recalls thinking when she first saw their new pastor.

“We had been used to seeing our pastors more seasoned and now we have this young, handsome man.”

She said she and other members soon found him to be a “people person,” someone they could call at any time. He’s also more of a night owl than is his wife.

“He comes to bed late because he does that phone talking thing late,” Valerie Dollison said.

“It’s always positive, but he needs to do it in another room so he doesn’t keep me up.”

Her husband, she said, is “the kind of person who loves people at their individual place” and isn’t judgmental.

That doesn’t mean he won’t be firm.

Church member Gabrielle Thompson, now 21, said he came to her high school to have lunch with her when she was going through a rebellious teenage period and said, “You’ve got to behave.”

Dollison focuses on developing opportunities for young people, remains calm in crises and “thinks very quickly on his feet,” said Roberts and others who were preparing First Missionary for an April celebration of Dollison’s 22nd anniversary there.

The church women interviewed said they see him digging holes, changing light bulbs, sweeping and hauling supplies in his 2006 Toyota Tundra truck. On a Friday in mid-April, he was at church in a black track suit.

He’s very involved in preparing for church activities, Valerie Dollison said.

“I wouldn’t say he’s a perfectionist where it’s sickening,” she clarified, “but he really likes it right.”

Involved in the NAACP throughout his adult life, Dollison said he didn’t lose his desire to work for justice when he came to First Missionary Baptist, but he hadn’t realized how to combine that effort with church leadership.

He credits a speech by Robert C. Linthicum, author of “Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community,” with showing him how.

“His speech on justice work really impacted my desire to engage in work of justice and bring the church into doing that,” he said.

A justice ministry at First Missionary and its involvement in the PEACE group developed as a result.

An example of how Dollison thinks on his feet came at PEACE’s Nehemiah action in March. He was caught off guard when Chief Judge William Bruce Smith didn’t give the expected commitment on a deadline to make records of children’s first-time minor offenses inaccessible.

Smith said he could support making the records inaccessible, but he couldn’t commit to a May deadline.

Dollison asked why and, respectfully but persistently, pressed for a more detailed answer.

PEACE’s focus this year is Polk County’s rate of youth arrests for misdemeanors and developing alternative punishments. The group wants a commitment from school officials to seek alternatives, which it got in March, and from the judicial system.

This drive isn’t criticism of law enforcement, Dollison said. He’s a senior chaplain for the Winter Haven Police Department and has a son who recently joined the Lakeland Police Department.

Dollison relaxes by biking, painting and tinkering with cars, including having restored a couple of classic ones. His penchant for changing from used vehicle to used vehicle, his wife said, led a parishioner to ask, “When is he going to get a preacher car?”

Polk Superintendent LeRoy pledges to help reduce arrests of students

March 31, 2014. The Lakeland Ledger.

PEACE Polk County 2014 actionA standing-room only crowd packs the sanctuary Monday during the 14th annual PEACE Nehemiah Action at St. Joseph’s Academy in Lakeland. Polk Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy said the district is working to find ways to reduce school based arrests.

LAKELAND | Polk Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy and Polk Sheriff Grady Judd made public commitments Monday to work with the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment on reducing school-based arrests for non-serious offenses.

“If we’re going to improve our student achievement and have our students succeed, they have to be in school,” LeRoy said, adding “We need a lot of professional development for both teachers and administrators on respect.”

She said the district is working to find the best ways to reduce such arrests, that she will develop an initial proposal by Aug.15, will give a copy to PEACE and will review it with PEACE by mid-September.

By January 2015, LeRoy said, implementing a finalized proposal can begin.

PEACE is a coalition of 19 churches. Its members research issues and seek collaboration from elected and appointed officials for changes aimed at solving problems.

Emotional statements from several pastors, recalling their own youthful experiences with being punished but not arrested or sharing accounts they have heard from their parishioners, underscored how deeply they feel about what they’re asking in 2014.

“I wouldn’t be here tonight if I had been arrested and not corrected,” said the Rev. Ronnie Clark of Hurst Chapel AME in Winter Haven.

Chief Judge William Bruce Smith gave a more mixed response than Judd or LeRoy.

Smith said he supports making records of first-time minor offenses inaccessible and using evidence-based needs assessments to get necessary services for the children.

He said “no,” however, when asked to take whatever steps are needed on such actions as putting those records in a different records system by May 1.

How it gets done “isn’t entirely my decision,” Smith said, but he will take the issue to his partners in the criminal justice system.

One key partner, State Attorney Jerry Hill, who was invited with the others to PEACE’s 14th annual Nehemiah Action, didn’t come to the standing-room only meeting that brought at least 1,450 people to St. Joseph’s Academy in Lakeland.

PEACE is focusing on Polk’s high number of arrests of youths, which PEACE said was 975 arrests for first-time, minor offenses.

“These kids have a record and these records are getting out,” said the Rev. Cory Britt of First United Methodist Church in Lakeland.

“We are going to need to see significant changes if we are going to see the number 975 go down,” said the Rev. Clifton Dollison of First Missionary Baptist in Winter Haven.

PEACE’s goals are:

Reducing school-based arrests for minor offenses.

Putting youth arrests for first-time minor offenses in a separate “prevention web” instead of the regular juvenile justice database.

Had Hill come, he would have been asked for the same support and actions as Smith. Both are in the 10th Judicial Circuit of Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties. Smith said Polk has an effective system, Teen Court, for pre-arrest and pre-trial diversion.

“I am open to suggestions to make that system even better,” he said. “We are always looking for ways to improve the current system.”

That drew applause despite his not agreeing to the May 1 deadline. The system PEACE is proposing is used in other counties around the state, PEACE said, but Smith said it hadn’t worked in the past in Polk. Dollison thanked Judd for his ongoing support, telling the audience, “The sheriff has demonstrated leadership in this area.”

Judd said arrests of juveniles were down 26 percent. He challenged parents and religious leaders to do more to keep children on track.