By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – Iris Florentino’s left wrist is adorned with a daily visual reminder: Here, in capital navy blue letters is engraved the name “Tabitha,” below it, the words, “One day at a time” appear.
“Aunty” to Tabitha Cruz, who- along with Omari Free, was randomly…senselessly murdered, at a Halloween party on Broadway in the City of Newburgh on October 30, 2016, Florentino needs little memory jogging to know how special her brother’s daughter was and deeply committed she is to follow-live by her five word mantra each and every day.
“I miss everything about her, just her aura and the way she always looked at the good in people and life, recalled Florentino about her niece, as she carefully applied some finishing touches on a child’s facepainting flower at her booth during Saturday’s 6th Annual Birthday Celebration for Omani & Tabby at Newburgh’s Algonquin Park. “She made me want to be a better person.”
It’s that kind of deep love and admiration, shared by an entire community for both of these young women which within a week of the tragedy inspired the two mothers, Rhonda Valentine-Free and Jeannette Drake to jointly plant the seeds for this celebration of life and community, stressing anti-violence and bullying, as well as attention to mental health, while offering fun and positive alternatives. Each year the well-attended, evolving gathering is held around mid-late August, honoring the two girls’ coincidental, consecutive day birthdays: Free, who would have been 25, on August 14th, and Cruz, 27, on the 15th.
“Our focus is to bring the community together, especially the kids; they really need us and the guidance we offer,” explained Valentine-Free, whose daughter Omani was passionate about dancing and the arts and worked incredibly hard, getting to and excited about her Newburgh Free Academy senior year. “We don’t always have that togetherness in our community because people are focused on work, family and other things, but we really need to do more, showing love, kindness and caring; we do this in both of these girls’ memories.”
Saturday, from 12pm-7pm, that active display of doing more could be spotted throughout Algonquin Park. Here, youth could be seen absorbed in exciting ping pong sessions, smiling wide as they watched a tee-shirt transform from a solid hue to a brilliant rainbow of colors and then get to add it to their wardrobe, testing out their dance moves at the 360 Booth or animated gestures at the nearby photo one, teenagers cooperatively competing in team-building potato sack, hula hoop, and balloon relay races (“having to lean on one another to get to the next step”), enjoying a wide range of American and Mexican foods and beverages, listening to the exhilarating melodies being spun by Newburgh’s own, DJ Demarco, and just simply feeling safe- as a child should- while peacefully enjoying the beautiful, late summer day ambience.
“We really want the kids to know each other now in a positive way,” said Drake, who has also created “Tabby’s Tails-“ a 501(c)(3), focused on raising critical funds for an animal shelter, something that would have been pivotal for her daughter who had a deep passion for animals, many which she rescued and were “her four-legged friends” who she was in close communication with: two dogs (one she read to), a cat, guinea pig and bird upon her passing, and was immersed in attending veterinarian school. “We want to do all we can so children grow together and aren’t against each other.”
Back at Florentino’s packed facepainting booth signs of that mission were on full display. Young, smiling girls proudly showing off their designs, huddled around one another; parents nearby, watching, guiding and uplifting. They reveal powerful-lasting community bonding, healthy choices to senseless violence, means of honing priceless self-esteem, a much yearned for return to innocence, fun, hope….”one day at a time.”
“If I can save just one, two children, it’s all worth it,” reflected Florentino about the emotional magnitude of the day. “I do this for my niece, anything at all to touch kids’ lives in a positive way.”
In addition to the Annual Birthday Celebration, the mother duo has also organized a yearly October 30 Gun Violence Walk, consistently attended by around 100 participants, starting at Dupont and continuing down Broadway where the shooting took place. Future plans, aimed at broadening the horizons of Newburgh youth, exposing them to a wide range of engaging and uplifting activities are in the works. The momentum to do even more has only increased over time.
It’s all about love: for community, for Tabby and Omani, for life, and for a better tomorrow.