Paying It Forward

by Nat Harwell

Having grown up in the Covington Family YMCA, Jabari Bennett has chosen to give back by serving the program that has given him so much.

There is just something about folks who hail from Trinidad. Perhaps it comes from inheriting a culture of giving back or from knowing the right thing to do and then doing it. It might be an overstatement to categorize every Trinidadian as a really good person, but it certainly is not so in summarizing a young fixture at the Covington Family YMCA. A collegian with hopes of teaching at the university level, Jabari Bennett appeared at the Y at an early age and now brightens the lives there as an adult.

“My dad, Brent, grew up in Trinidad,” Bennett said, “and a sense of giving back to society was ingrained in him from the culture; and I learned that from him. My dad was firm but always right.”

The family moved from Trinidad to Long Island, New York, where Bennett was born in 1996. After a short stay in Brooklyn, they relocated to Newton County when he was just a year old. His dad linked arms with the YMCA and got him involved with playing soccer when he was 4. Although he was bright and talented, Bennett was also shy and reluctant to engage with others. School proved challenging until Bennett met a transformative teacher—he remembers her only as Ms. Andrecik—at Porterdale Elementary. 

“She taught me how to treat people properly, to come out of my shell a bit,” Bennett said. “Little things like greeting people sincerely by looking them in the eye, asking ‘How are you?’ and saying ‘Thank you’ sincerely.”

At Indian Creek Middle School, he discovered a program called “Y-Pals,” which was offered when he was in the seventh and eighth grades. From there, the YMCA experience deepened for Bennett. His father, Brent, served as a volunteer. Covington Family YMCA Executive Director Louly Hay-Kapp speaks of him in glowing terms. 

“Brent is a fantastic person,” Hay-Kapp said. “He has a clarity of purpose in a world full of gray.”

Still learning that elusive commodity called confidence, Bennett became a fixture at the YMCA through soccer, day camps, a swim team and as a training leader for others. For three summers, he served as a day camp supervisor and coordinator. 

“The Y became, and continues to be, like a family for me,” Bennett said. “Folks like Mr. Anthony Smith, Mrs. Erin Pitts, Ms. Kacie Brown and Mrs. Louly all treated me like one of their own.”

He’s like a light shining pure joy on all of us. Jabari brightens every room into which he walks, and we all just love him here.

Louly Hay-Kapp, Covington Family YMCA Executive Director

It made a monumental difference in the life of a shy youngster trying to find a way to be himself in a culture increasingly more and more difficult to comprehend. Although the groundwork had been laid by significant people he had encountered in elementary and middle schools, Bennett points to a breakthrough in three specific areas at Eastside High School. He played tuba in “The Pride of Eastside” band and was immediately made to feel an important part of that outstanding organization. However, Bennett reserves a special place in his heart for two men who literally changed his life.

“Coach Champ Young made me a starter on the soccer team when I was just a sophomore,” Bennett said. “He taught me to trust my instincts, to do what I knew I could do, to cut loose and have fun and to leave it all on the field. Coach Young took me out of my shell and showed me what was possible.”

As for his other mentor, anyone who has ever been in the hallways at Eastside High School during class change has heard the booming voice announce “30 seconds!” and count down until the tardy bell rings. That voice belongs to Dr. Hugh Waters, a multi-talented teacher who motivated Bennett to think on an entirely different level. 

“Dr. Waters’ love of history, his ability to make it come alive, totally sparked in me a similar desire to know all I can learn about history, to make it real to others,” Bennett said. “He was the first to suggest to me that I might major in history in college and actually become a professor of history someday; and that’s exactly what I intend to do as I pursue my [Master’s degree] in history at Valdosta State University.”

In the meantime, Hay-Kapp wants to hold on to Bennett for as long as she can.

“He’s like a light shining pure joy on all of us,” she said. “Jabari brightens every room into which he walks, and we all just love him here.”

It should come as no surprise upon closer inspection. From an inborn cultural desire to pay it forward, Bennett has come light years from the shy, retiring little boy in a strange new society to the outgoing, effervescent shining light he is today. Bennett credits the many people who were in just the right place at just the right time to influence his life in so many positive ways. The recipient of good being deposited in his life by others who cared enough to pay attention, he has decided to pass that good along to others who are fortunate enough to cross paths with him. Good does indeed go around and around and around. 

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