Vance L. Adamson Jr. made history last week as a Niagara Falls High School student.
The 18-year-old senior Monday received the first Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Civil Rights Award from the National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York.
He won the award because he exemplifies the beliefs and dreams the civil rights leader shared with the world before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
>How did you end up getting the award?
The Student Council at Niagara Falls High School nominated me for it. There were a couple of us being considered, and they voted for me.
>How do you feel about receiving the award and people associating you with Dr. King's legacy?
It's an honor to get this award. I'm thankful for it. I guess I'm making history because it's the first time it's even been given to a student [at Niagara Falls High School]. And just to be compared to [Martin Luther King Jr.] in any way is just a big, big, big plus to me because he was always trying to do the right thing for all people.
>Why were you selected?
They say it's my personality, the way I am. When people see me in the hallways, I'm always talking to everybody no matter who they are. I'm friendly and try to help people whenever I can. But I honestly never thought I was doing anything big. I'm just being myself and doing what I can to make things good for people.
>Dr. King's dream was to have everyone working together hand in hand. What do you want for your community and the world?
I want to see the whole world come together as one. I want people to see people as people, not by color or anything else. I've always liked hanging out with a lot of different people. I don't like seeing people put down. I think everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. If I see somebody trying to take advantage of somebody, I try to stop that. I try to defend them even if I don't know them. I really do because I don't think it's right to [mistreat anyone].
>How do you do your part to carry on Dr. King's mission as a student at school?
I'm in this leadership program, called the Power of One. I joined it two years ago, and we do a lot to help kids if they have problems. We also help prepare eighth-graders to come to high school. There's about 30 of us in it, ninth- through 12th-graders
>What are some of the things you do with the Power of One to help students out?
If they -- mostly ninth- and 10th-graders -- have problems with each other, or a behavior problem, instead of sending them to a dean or one of the principals, we try to help them work things out. For example, we do peer mediation. If there's a conflict between two students in the school, they can come to us, and we try to get them to come to an agreement on how to solve their problem. . . . Say there's a situation where two girls or two guys are ready to fight. What we do is sit them down across from each other and, one at a time, let them tell their side of the story.
We let them know the reason they are here is because if it went to the principal they would probably have been suspended and we don't want that to happen. So we try to work with them to come up with an agreement. Sometimes one of them says they were wrong and apologizes so they can be friends. Sometimes there is no real resolution but they agree to go their separate ways and not bother each other. They sign a contract saying that and understand if they break that contract and end up clashing again, they'll be automatically suspended.
>Does it work?
Once they have that talk with us, they realize it's not really worth getting kicked out of school for. So we end up with an agreement a majority of the time. I know every time I've done it, we've come up up with a good agreement. I haven't lost anybody yet.
>How do you know how to handle sticky situations like that?
We are trained how to deal with people and help them with different problems. You have to be trained to do peer mediation. Every May, we go to Peek'n Peek, the ski resort, where we get training for that and things like leadership and character building.
>What are some of the other things you do to help fellow students as a Power of One member?
We do a summer academy for eighth-graders who are going to be in the ninth grade. We meet with them, talk with them, play some games, have fun and show them around the school so they're familiar with everything. The most important thing is we get to know them, so when they get into ninth grade they won't feel like strangers. They'll know somebody at school and feel more comfortable. They know the Power of One kids, so if they're having any kind of problem they know they can come to us with it.
>Are you involved in other Power of One activities?
Quite a few. A majority of the kids we deal with . . . aren't doing so well and have behavior or academic problems. So we try to work with them and get them on the right path. We also do a lot of of exercises with them, to teach them not to listen to gossip and take it seriously, because people hear things out of context and things get so twisted [that] the thing that gets passed on never resembles the truth.
We do 'he says, she says' exercises, like whispering something to one person and have it passed on from one person to another to see if the last person can repeat what the first person said. It never works. We do it because a lot of stuff like that happens at our school and causes problems.
>Do you handle more personal problems?
If there's something we can't handle, we send them to a guidance counselor. Sometimes a kid has a problem that is so personal that they don't want to share it with another student. So they need to talk to an adult about things like a family problem or something else that's real personal.
>How do you think Dr. King would feel today if he visited Niagara Falls High School?
I wish he was here to see us together at the same school. There are problems throughout the world, but I think he'd be proud to see how we've all come together at Niagara Falls High School. I don't think there are any problems here because of color at all. No problems whatsoever. Dr. King stood up for that and died for it, and his dream came true here. I have a lot of white friends, and I have a lot of black friends. I never really have a problem with anybody at this school. I don't see color at all, and I don't think most kids do.
>Have you always been what might be considered a model citizen at school?
No. I have my dark side. Most people don't believe that now -- that's good -- but in ninth and tenth grade, I was having personal problems. I would get angry easy and fight with kids outside of school. My marks went from a B in eighth grade to barely a C in ninth and tenth grades. My dad and I fell out. My grandmother was disappointed in me. I wasn't Mr. Friendly. After a while, some of my teachers referred me to Mrs. [Tammy] Wolfgang. She's guidance counselor, and she helped me out. I turned it around, I did a complete 180.
>What were some of the things that made you change?
I had a nephew who was 8 years old. He looked up to me a lot, and I didn't want him seeing me the way everybody else did, getting into trouble and getting everybody mad at me. It wasn't like I went to jail or anything, but I got a lot of people upset. Anyway, my nephew wrote an essay about his uncle Vance and said a lot of nice stuff about me. And I said, 'You know what, I want to be a good role model because he looks up to me.' I figured I had to live up to that to keep him on the right track.
And I've got a little brother who was playing basketball and was wearing my number. He obviously looked up to me. So I had good reasons to turn things around. I told myself, 'I can't keep doing this anymore.' I have a girlfriend, too, and she helped. There were a lot of things that made me change, including my mother. I'm a mama's boy.
>Did your marks get better?
In the first marking period in 11th grade, my average was 86. I really like that. It made me feel good. When that happened, I said, 'This is the old Vance.'
>Do you do any other activities in school?
I played varsity football. I played linebacker and running back. I've run on the track team. I might do that this year.
>Do you have any college plans?
I've applied to Niagara County Community College and Erie Community College, and I'm looking at some four-year colleges. St. Lawrence University seems really interested in me, so I'm going up there with a couple of friends in a week or two to see it.