According to the city of Phoenix the Martin Luther King Jr. Living the Dream Award is given to those "who have made Phoenix a better place to live through a lifelong commitment to creating a compassionate and socially just society."
That seems strange to the two Ahwatukee Foothills residents who will be given the award this year who say their work is just getting started.
"I'm at a point in my life where I feel like my ability to make a difference is just now formulating," said Dr. Wil Counts, a professor emeritus at Gateway Community College and a pharmacist. "I hope to continue to make an enormous difference in society in terms of promoting equality and basically helping ensure that the races and different cultures understand each other and continue to move in a forward direction. I feel like I'm just starting."
Counts is being recognized for his work on the board of the Juneteenth and Martin Luther King Scholarship programs.
The Juneteenth Scholarship is awarded each year to an inner-city student who has talent but because of financial barriers, may not have reached the kind of grade point average traditional scholarships recognize.
He has also spent years working with the American Psychological Association and lead the effort to make sure cultural diversity was an important area included in psychology curriculum in major universities.
Counts has won many awards throughout his career and though he feels like he has much more to accomplish, he is especially honored to receive this one.
"I actually met Martin Luther King when I was in high school," Counts said. "I was very influenced by his words on equality. I guess that influence always made me feel like I needed to follow and do whatever I could to help with equality. I guess the fact that I met him when I was in high school, it really sunk in. He was a tremendous influence in my life. To win that award is probably the greatest thing."
Another Ahwatukee resident, Jerry Oliver II, is being recognized for his work coordinating law enforcement's participation in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade.
Oliver is a detective for the police department, working in a special squad called the Community Response Squad.
His job is to work as a liaison with community activists or leaders to straighten out any confusion they might have with the police department and help the two groups work together.
As part of his job Oliver works closely with the Martin Luther King Celebration Committee.
When the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and festival first began in the 80s it was peaceful but eventually the way the event was structured and the entertainment that was hired attracted a younger crowd and some gang violence.
Oliver was asked to step in about 10 years ago to find a way to coordinate the event so that things were kept peaceful without Phoenix Police needing to have an intimidating presence.
Oliver, who is 41, says he's glad to be recognized for his efforts but it's a little strange getting the award so young.
"When someone says lifetime achievement I feel like I should be in my 70s or something," Oliver said. "It's kind of a weird feeling to me. I think I still have a lot left to do."
Oliver has three kids and said he hopes this award shows them they can be recognized for just going to work and doing what's right and treating people with respect.
"I never grew up wanting to be a cop but I've been here over 20 years," Oliver said. "I like doing the job I do right now because it's not the typical job that people would recognize as what an officer does. I am big-time into community. I have no problem talking to a transient and turning around and going to a meeting with some top notch officials and still being the same person with the same professionalism and respect. I think that's what got me this job and I think it's what makes me good at the job I do."
The two will be honored with five other awardees at a breakfast on Friday, Jan. 13 at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel, 340 N. Third St.
Cost for the event is $65 per person or $650 for a table of 10. Deadline for reservations is 4 p.m. Jan. 6.
For more information on the breakfast or other MLK events in January call 602-254-5081.
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