Local Council for Unity group sets the standard

Twenty-seven students were inducted into the Council for Unity youth group at Giorgio’s at Fox Hill last week, including (from left) Porscha Reeder, Alexa Nieves and TaQuira James. The young man was a friend of Alexa’s. The keynote speaker was Sean Dino Johnson. Rachel Tice and Nick Hopkins were the student speakers.

It’s now been seven years since the Council for Unity program was first introduced in the Riverhead School District.

The program, which teaches conflict resolution, self-respect and ways to keep kids out of gangs and get them involved in positive activities, was brought to Riverhead High School in 2003, about a year after fights broke out on that campus and people were beginning to realize that gangs roamed in Riverhead.

And according to Bob DeSena, a former high school teacher who founded the Council for Unity program amid race riots in Brooklyn in 1975, the Riverhead program has now become a role model for groups looking to bring Council for Unity to their communities.

“You have become the shining star in the Council for Unity constellation,” Mr. DeSena said last Thursday at the program’s induction ceremony at Giorgio’s restaurant in Baiting Hollow. “Because of Riverhead, we now have Council for Unities in Brentwood, Central Islip, William Floyd, Patchogue-Medford and Hempstead.

“You have been a magnet for delegations that have come here from Buffalo, Albany, Newburgh, New York City, Hempstead, to see your program,” he said.

The Riverhead program has spread beyond the high school, and chapters are now in place at the middle school and Pulaski Street School, as well as the town police department and the county jail. In addition, Mr. DeSena said, there is also a local parent and community chapter.

Last Thursday at Giorgio’s, 27 more students were inducted into the program.

People who have been involved in the program say it works.

Butch Langhorn, an assistant to Sheriff Vincent DiMarco, recalled the time when Mr. DeSena first presented the concept to the sheriff.

“Bob is talking, and I’m looking at the sheriff, and the sheriff is looking at me and we’re saying to ourselves, ‘What the heck is this guy talking about? He’s nuts.’ You’re talking about Bloods, Crips, all of these bad guys coming together to do Kumbayas.”

But Mr. Langhorn said the gang problem in the jail was so bad, they decided to give it a shot.

“In about six months, we saw the difference,” Mr. Langhorn said. “Our corrections folks started saying, ‘What’s happening here? Things are quieting down.’â”

Nick Hopkins, a 2007 Riverhead High School graduate, said he’d spent his first three years of high school getting into trouble.

“The majority of my conversations with my teachers were filled with words I can’t say and gestures I can’t show,” he said. “I would always fight and I just didn’t care about my schoolwork — until I was introduced to Council for Unity.”

Mr. Hopkins said the program gave him a reason not to do the things he used to do, and turned his life around.

“I went from being a person who failed out and went to summer school every year, to graduating with an 89 grade point average,” he said.

“Four years ago, I never would have imagined myself giving a speech about my success,” said Riverhead High School senior Rachel Tice. She said she would have thought she’d be dead or in jail by now.

She, too, credits Council for Unity for turning her life around, and says that without it, she probably would have dropped out of school, whereas now, she’s preparing to go to college.

“Council increased my grades, got me involved in school activities and changed my mindset on life,” said Ms. Tice.

Mr. DeSena said the original founders of Council for Unity were racists and gang members who came together in the midst of fighting at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn.

“You cannot walk out of here believing that any one of you cannot make a profound difference in your world,” Mr. DeSena told students at the induction ceremony.

[email protected]

Looking to comment on this article? Send us a letter to the editor instead.