With speeches and songs and poems and reflections, Ridgefielders remembered the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the town’s 24th annual celebration of the Civil Rights leader on Monday, Jan. 20, at the Ridgefield Playhouse.

Organizers Mark Robinson and First Selectman Rudy Marconi delivered opening remarks, while the Ridgefield Chorale performed “Lean on Me” and actress Kimberly Wilson channeled poet Maya Angelou and sang the gospel hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” That quote from Dr. King is the inscription that we engrave on the annual Spirit of Dr. King, Ridgefield Community Service Award, because that is the question that guides everything that we do to plan and present this annual ceremony,” Robinson said. “That is the question that inspires every one of our choices.

“Most of us have a routine,” he continued. “We begin each year with a set of resolutions, a set of promises that we make to ourselves. These are usually promises about how we can do better or be better. How we will exercise more and finally lose those 20 pounds, or quit smoking or clean out the garage. We mean well, although we don’t always keep our promises. And —if we’re really being honest — our promises are mostly focused on our own personal needs.

“But what if this year we made some resolutions that weren’t about what we want, but were about the needs of others? What if we made a promise to focus just a little bit of our New Year resolve on something greater than ourselves?”

Dr. Carol Mahlstedt, who has been instrumental in leading the creation and operation of Compassionate Ridgefield and Project Resilience, received Ridgefield’s “Spirit of Dr. King Award” that recognizes individual community service.

“I am very grateful to receive this award but I cannot stress enough that the work of Project Resilience and Compassionate Ridgefield is done by dozens of committee members,” Mahlstedt said. “... We honor [Dr. King’s] dream by continuing the work and that’s what we’ll do. ...

“We are a village and together we can make a difference,” she added. “Everyone is welcome to join us. Our next Compassionate Ridgefield meeting is Feb. 6.”

Marconi called Mahlstedt “a very special leader” and someone the rest of the Ridgefield community should follow.

“Our recipients have seen the need and done for others,” he added. “They have served our community in the spirit of Dr. King.”

Stephen Lavatori was presented a special posthumous award for his wife, longtime Ridgefield resident Sharron McCleery Lavatori who passed away in September 2018.

McCleery Lavatori, who graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1975, was a 50-year resident of Ridgefield. She was an active and involved member of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and volunteered at the church’s annual Nutmeg Festival.

“Sharron lived a life of giving,” Marconi said. “She remains an inspiration to all of us.”

“If you knew her, you knew she had a huge heart that did not discriminate,” added Stephen, Sharron’s husband, in his acceptance speech.

Love is in the air

Wilson had everyone in the crowd to turn to the person sitting next to them and tell that person, “I love you and I’m so glad you were born.”

“We all have the right to be loved,” Wilson said. “It’s that simple — there’s no reason why we should feel discouraged.”

She urged the crowd to stand up for righteousness and to triumph hope above hatred.

“There’s truth in hope and courage, there’s truth in loving the human next to you,” she said.

‘I, Too’

Other performances during the ceremony included “Children Will Listen” performed by ACT of CT’s children’s chorus and “Put A Little Love in Your Heart” by the Ridgefield Chorale at the end of the ceremony.

Ridgefield A Better Chance (RABC) students Lashawnna Mullins, Natalie Esikumo, and Tyra Small read poems “I, Too” by Langston Hughes and “I am the Black Child” by Mychal Wynn.

“I am special, ridicule cannot sway me. I am strong, obstacles cannot stop me. I hold my head high, proudly proclaiming my uniqueness. I hold my pace, continuing forward through adversity. I am proud of my heritage,” Small said, reading Wynn’s poem. “I am confident that I can achieve my every goal. I am becoming all that I can be. I am the Black Child, I am a Child of God.”

Esikumo, a junior at Ridgefield High School, told the auditorium of about 150 people about her journey from Kenya to America.

“I didn’t know how long it would take me to adapt,” she said of arriving in Ridgefield two years ago, “but I found a lot of students to be genuinely interested in who I am and where I was from.”

While most Ridgefield students have been welcoming, Esikumo said she has heard the same persistent stereotypes and witnessed the same racist imagery that has undermined African Americans for generations.

“I’ve seen and heard things that have angered me,” she said. “... Whether it’s blackface or written messages containing racial slurs, stereotypes persist — even in this very generous community.

“Diversity should be embraced, not shunned,” she added. “I have a rich cultural background that I can teach to others. ... We must get to know somebody before stereotyping them because at the end of the day we have more similarities than differences.”

Religious leaders

The ceremony started with an invocation given by the Rev. Dr. Deborah Rundlett of Ridgebury Congregational Church.

“When celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. I always say that we should go to the place where they have fallen and pick up that baton,” Rundlett said. “We have to carry that baton for the next mile. It’s the challenge and privilege that we all must face.”

Rabbi David Reiner of Congregation Shir Shalom offered reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before the poem readings by RABC students.

“We should not need committees to promote compassion but we’re so grateful for the work that’s being done,” Reiner said. “Dr. King was always motivated by the belief that the world can improve and will improve — that the world he lived in was not the world he imagined it could be, and these volunteers are shining examples of that belief.”

Rabbi Reiner discussed America’s history with racism and violence.

“We still yearn for the promises of liberty, justice and equality,” he said.

He preached for the room to be resilient and to have hope in the present.

“There’s still work to be done,” he told the room. “ .... We can dream of a perfect world and we won’t be satisfied until righteousness rains down in a steady stream.”

The Rev. Whitney Altopp of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church delivered the ceremony’s benediction.

“Sharron had a mindfulness toward others that was contagious and that we’re still remembering it says a lot about what that type of contribution means to a community,” Rev. Altopp said, recalling her six years as McCleery Lavatori’s pastor. “If you want to people to talk about you when you’re gone, follow in Sharron’s footsteps.”

She said Martin Luther King Jr. Day should be used to remember the legacy of a great man but that it should also serve as an inspiration to all individuals to live life like him.

“Bless us with compassion and perseverance,” she prayed with the crowd. “... The practice of justice is what makes justice possible.”

‘What am I doing for others?’

Robinson concluded his speech asking the same question King posed to his many followers.

“We should not come here just to celebrate the achievements of Dr. King or the service of one special Ridgefielder,” he said. “We should come here to remind ourselves how to live our own lives in the spirit of Dr. King. We should come here to be inspired, to be motivated, to be energized.”

“... Right here, right now, in our town, in Ridgefield, each of us has an opportunity to be great,” he added. “I am calling upon each of you to commemorate this holiday by making your own personal commitment to serve humanity, to serve your community, whether it is our little town or the community of man. Wherever your heart takes you. Serve with the vibrant spirit of unconditional love that was Dr. King’s greatest strength, and which empowered all of the great victories of his leadership.

“May we who follow Dr. King now pledge to serve humanity, promote his teachings and carry forward his legacy through our own lives. And with our hearts open to this spirit of love for our brother and our neighbor, we can achieve the beloved community of Martin Luther King’s dream.”