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AMBOY SPOTLIGHT: Barbara Walker

Younger girls working on their dancing

Remembrance of Husband Leads to Groundbreaking Youth Scholarship and Cotillion

Legacy and remembrance can be handled different ways, especially for those who served in the United States military.

During the Vietnam War, Johnnie A. Walker was wounded in battle but continued to serve his country for a total of 18 years. Despite his bravery and heroism, Walker never received a Purple Heart due to a fire that destroyed all records of his injury.

In 1988, Walker suddenly died after completing a physical fitness test in Kentucky, leaving his wife Barbara to mourn his death and find answers for her deceased childhood sweetheart. However, after sending letters to President Obama and the United States Congress, she never got the recognition her husband undoubtedly deserved.

After a number of failed attempts, Barbara Walker decided to honor her husband in a new way. She founded the Multicultural Grand Cotillion Scholarship Society, a non-profit organization that will host cotillions for young girls and boys and fund scholarships for future college students.

“I had helped with a cotillion in May 2011 for The Cathedral International Church, but I told myself it was time to do my own,” Walker said. “I found this as a way to not only help the children but honor the my husband and his platoon that served in Vietnam.”

Walker’s passion for cotillions dates back to her childhood in Jersey City, when the NAACP used to be in charge of the exquisite dances and made them one of the biggest social events in the area. However, Walker noted that there were strict educational requirements to partake in the cotillion, and she was unable to formally attend.

Barbara speaking with older boys and girls about fundraising.— photos by Joseph L. Kuchie

“Back then, you could only be 16 years old and a junior in high school to take part in these cotillions, and I was always held back because I didn’t have the grades to qualify,” Walker said. “Education never meant much back then and we kind of went with the times, but that’s not the case anymore. You need an education to succeed.”

Walker remembered her grandmother would take her to the cotillions and help her get dressed up and experience the moment. “Grandma Watkins” helped her see the beauty of the event and guided her to future success.

“Grandma Watkins, as we called her, would always take me to the cotillion, even if she knew I didn’t qualify to go,” a teary-eyed Walker said. “She always told me that regardless of the times, I would always do well in life and succeed, and God was good to me and helped me get to where I am today.”

Now, more than 50 years after attending her first cotillion, Walker is holding dance rehearsals and etiquette classes to teach young boys and girls the proper way to behave in society and become ladies and gentlemen. With help from Director Maritz Rodriguez, these classes and workshops will be held at the Puerto Rican Association Building for 12 weeks until the May cotillion.

“These workshops and classes will teach the kids how to dance properly and behave in upscale places, but it will also prepare them for the real world and ultimately will serve as a coming out,” Walker said. “They will learn how to write resumes and complete book reports, and we hope that after this they will start their preparation for college.”

Students who partake in these workshops will raise money to support the cotillion and start a college fund that they will be able to keep. According to Walker, 75 percent of the money raised during the 12-week program will go back to the students once the Cotillion is completed.

“For those students who are age five to 16, the money they raise will go into a college saving fund that they can add to until they are old enough for college,” Walker said. “The 17 year old students who raise extra money will get it right away and hopefully allow them to get a college education.”

Walker also began the Missy S.T.E.M. Scholarship, a fund that will go to 24 girls across 12 high schools in New Jersey that are going into the fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. All the money gathered through ticket sales and donations at the Cotillion will go into the scholarship and will further contribute to their education.

Walker’s program and foundation has received support from a number of well-known people in Perth Amboy, including Mayor Wilda Diaz and Cathedral International Church Bishop Donald Hillard. Community organizations like the YMCA and P.R.I.D.E. have also helped Walker get the word out and have hosted her rehearsals and registrations in the past year.

“The city of Perth Amboy has been great to me in the past year, and Mayor Diaz has given me the support and help I need to get this foundation going,” Walker said. “Even after I started my own organization, Bishop Hillard was nothing but supportive and has trusted me through the years to take on this responsibility. He is the one who gave me my start.”

Walker noted that her etiquette classes were inspired by Rachel’s challenge, a movement that helps teach students kindness and start a chain reaction to help establish passion in schools. The memorial was named after Rachel Scott, who was the first teenager to die in the Columbine shootings.

“I heard about this program and knew that this was something that could be taught to our children,” Walker said. “They teach kindness and politeness and help students reach their goals, and I have begun to collaborate with them and the rest of New Jersey to improve the children in our area.”

Currently the program has 17 registered boys and girls, but Walker will continue to take applications until she reaches her goal of 44. She hopes that the first year of these workshops will be a stepping-stone for years to come.

“We hope that after this year that the foundation will continue to move forward and get better,” Walker said. “As the cotillion grows to become something great, more girls [and boys] will look to and get involved, and it will open a horizon for the future of education.”

The Grand Debutant Cotillion will be held May 20th, 2012 at the Renaissance Woodbridge Hotel in Iselin. The Sayreville High School Jazz Ensemble will serve as the evening’s entertainment, and Julie Gonzalez and her dance group will choreograph the dancing.

Registration is still open for boys and girls looking to take part in the special event. For more information please contact Barbara Walker at mgcotillion@graduate.org.

 

by Joseph L. Kuchie

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