They’re the winners!
The Gaston Clergy and Citizens Coalition, an arm of Gaston Together, is proud to announce the 2021 winners of the annual Martin Luther King Unity Awards. This year’s honorees are Gastonia Police Chief Travis Brittain, Rev. Rodney Freeman and Shaaron Funderburk.
According to Gaston Together Executive Director Donna Lockett, the awards ceremony will be held Jan. 18 at 10:30 a.m. at Mt. Zion Restoration Church at 2311 Crescent Lane in Gastonia. But due to ongoing State-imposed virus-related restrictions, this year’s event will be Internet-based only, available on Facebook.
Lockett added that the MLK Unity Awards were established by the coalition 17 years ago. They recognize current or former Gaston County citizens who have performed exemplary community service to help build bridges of unity across lines of class, race, gender, faith and/or municipalities. Names of the honorees are engraved on the MLK Monument at the MLK Plaza in Gastonia. Past honorees include former state senator Marshall Rauch, former Mount Holly city manager Danny Jackson and the late Gaston County Schools superintendent Dr. Ed Sadler. Last year’s honorees were veterinarian Dr. Mark Epstein, Gastonia Mayor Walker Reid III and Christian activist John Weisenhorn.
Brittain and Freeman are being honored together for their efforts to promote the covenant of understanding between Gaston Clergy and Citizens Coalition and local law-enforcement personnel, as Lockett explained.
“Both men have done exemplary work individually in building bridges of unity throughout their careers,” said Lockett. “However, the groundwork these two have laid together while putting the tenets of the covenant into practice has truly made a tremendous positive impact in our community. They have built a relationship between each other and their respective networks in the law enforcement and the African/American communities that kept the worst from happening here in the aftermath of George Floyd and other killings, as well as the Confederate Monument protests.
“These two individuals embraced, facilitated and created out of whole cloth a movement that spared Gastonia the worst that could and might have happened,” she continued, adding that their work “lays the foundation for it to continue far into the future, continuing a proud Gastonia tradition of actively addressing race issues in the spirit of the Human Relations Commission in the early 1960’s. I don’t think there can be any more deserving recipients of a Unity Award named after Dr. King.”
Born and raised in Gastonia and a graduate of Ashbrook High School, Brittain earned a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice at Gardner-Webb University and a master’s degree in justice administration at Methodist University. He is a 2013 graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 254th session, and he received the Advanced Law Enforcement Certificate from the State of North Carolina. Brittain is a quarter-century veteran of the GPD, and he has spent the past six years in its executive management. He became chief Oct. 1.
Brittain serves on the boards of several community organizations, including the executive boards of the Gaston Clergy and Citizens Coalition and Habitat for Humanity of Gaston County, where he co-planned initiatives to build homes in areas affected by crime. He is also a member of the Rotary Club of East Gastonia.
A native of York, S.C., Freeman has spent the past 21 years as the pastor of Mt. Zion Restoration Church. He earned an associate of arts degree in biblical studies at Jacksonville Theological Seminary, a bachelor of arts degree in pastoral studies from Queen City Bible College, a master of divinity degree from Gardner-Webb and a doctorate of ministry degree from Ashland Theological Seminary. He is the first black to be appointed president of the York Rotary Club. Freeman is the founder and CEO of Save Our Children Youth Academy, as well as the Bountiful Blessings Food Pantry. Both are in Gastonia.
A graduate of Huss High and Johnson C. Smith University, Funderburk is well known in Gaston County for her work as the CEO of the Off the Streets Program, Inc., which she founded. It’s designed to assist women in getting off the streets and becoming free from street life, drugs and alcohol. Tough love and strong leadership by Funderburk have resulted in rehabilitation for many of these women, who have re-entered the work force and life as capable, responsible and constructive members of society. She knows first-hand what it’s like to wake up and not know what has happened in your life for a period of time because you were “cracked” out of your mind, and your best friend is a crack pipe.
At one time, Funderburk herself hit rock-bottom and said, “This is it. I have had enough, and I cannot go on living this way.”
Not only did she change, but now she also helps others to change. Over the past 17 years, she has helped rehabilitate more than 1,000 women, with a 90 percent success rate. She attributes this to knowing what it’s like to be in their shoes.
Lockett said the awards ceremony recognizes King’s dream for all people.
“It is a dream very much alive in Gaston County,” she said. “Please join the celebration as we honor those in our midst who have worked to build bridges of unity in our county.”