The rain didn’t stop children in costumes from circling around the outdoor venue like cars on a racetrack Thursday evening.
The covered area outside the Duval Early Learning Academy building was lined with tables while volunteers served food, managed carnival games and handed out toys and candy as prizes. Even Gainesville Police Department officers joined in on the fun, grooving in the middle of the dance floor.
More than 100 community members came together to enjoy Duval Heights community’s Youth Night and Community Fall Festival, held at Duval Early Learning Academy at 2106 NE Eighth Ave.
Duval Heights is a historically Black neighborhood located in East Gainesville. With the rise of gun violence among youth throughout Gainesville during the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of Duval Heights have felt the need for a lighthearted family event.
The Rev. Gerard Duncan, an organizer of the festival, said he knew the community would show up for an event like this because it’s been so long.
“We just really have a very strong passion for our community,” Duncan said. “We thought about everything that the Duval community has experienced over the pandemic. And we thought, ‘What could we do as community leaders to bring the community together?’”
Besides providing games and food, the festival set up a corner of the event where people could get their COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots.
“Vaccines are important,” Duncan said. “As a community leader who's really been a part of leading the vaccine charge away from vaccine hesitancy, I wanted to make sure that I included it as a part of this event, as well. We want to promote it.”
Samantha Maurice, a 24-year-old UF College of Medicine student, works as a volunteer at the college’s mobile outreach clinic. She said volunteers came to the festival to meet community members where they are.
“Instead of trying to get them to come to us, we just decided to come to them,” Maurice said.
Maurice said the clinic expected to give out 40 to 50 booster shots to people who had both of their vaccine shots at least six months before the festival.
Pam Smith, a 77-year-old Gainesville resident and event volunteer, was painted green and dressed as a witch while greeting guests at the front of the event venue.
“I keep a witch's costume around,” Smith said. “I just want to make it interesting to the kids.”
For Smith, Halloween is a time of creativity and fun. Her daughter was also born on Halloween, so it is a special time for her family.
“Gainesville used to have huge Halloween parties for young people,” she said. “I associate it with maybe being able for some people to be able to get a little wild but not dangerous.”
Nasseeka Denis, 28, is the high school director of Aces in Motion, an afterschool program and volunteer organization based at Duval Early Learning Academy.
The organization tabled at the festival and put out sign-up sheets for families who wanted to enroll their children alongside the 65 middle school and high school students in their program.
“We're all about community,” Denis said. “We try to find ways to get involved in the community in any capacity, whether it's coming by, saying hi, tabeling or whatever. We just want to be a part of what's going on.”
Denis said by volunteering for events like these, the students are learning about giving back to their communities.
“We definitely want our students to know you always want to give back to where you come from,” she said. “And if you want to see change, be that change.”
Tamarra Jenkins, a 38-year-old Gainesville resident, said she was on her way to her son’s football practice when she drove past the festival and remembered she promised to let her children go to the event.
Jenkins said that positive events for the community are long overdue. As a community organizer, she is helping to plan more events like this one to promote youth safety.
“With the gun violence and everything, we've already been preparing for scheduled events that would allow for the youth to have more faith and family around,” she said.
Her 8-year-old daughter, Makayla, said she enjoys meeting new people at events like these.
“It's really important to gather and to create this unity where they know that they don't have to be pitted against each other,” Jenkins said. “That's what they need. With COVID having everyone just so disconnected, I think that's where a lot of things got lost in translation.”
Contact Jiselle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jiselle_lee.
Jiselle Lee is a journalism junior and The Alligator’s features and investigations editor. Previously, she was a reporter for NextShark and a news intern at The Bradenton Herald. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting and going to the beach.