(Editor’s note: Each week during Black History Month, we’ll run a profile of an African-American who is a positive role model. This is the first part in a five-part series.)
The church on East High Street is empty, save for the man who’s trusted enough to possess a key. It’s Monday afternoon. The street is quiet. School traffic has already passed through.
Forrest Tyrone Burton’s vision for the youth of the community fills the otherwise empty church.
His advice to young people in Springfield and Washington County?
“To dream as high as you can possibly dream,” he said. “And don’t give up on your dream. Dream to the fullest.”
Above all else, he said, put God first.
“…and everything will be added unto you,” he said.
Burton works in Lebanon and lives in Louisville. He’s been a surgical assistant at Spring View Hospital in Lebanon for 18 years, he said. He’s been teaching other nurses in Louisville how to perform CPR and first aid, among other things, for the last eight years.
That he works in a field that involves caring for other people is no surprise.
Helping people, and respecting them, has been part of his life since he was young.
“My parents have always, they’ve always taught us to respect other folk and to treat people the way you want to be treated,” he said. “That’s always with me. I’ve always treated people with the utmost respect.”
People tell him that he seems always willing to help, always willing to share and do things for other people.
“That’s my upbringing,” he said.
Music has been a part of his life for a long time, as well.
He performed in the high school band (Washington County High School, class of ’89) and sang in the chorus.
He said he sings at weddings, local and out-of-state.
Burton said he also had the honor of singing the national anthem at the retirement of a good friend who was in the military.
Earlier last month, he worked with children and youth to perform at the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration at the River of Life.
He said he told one of the event organizers that he really wanted to get the youth involved at the celebration.
“Because they are really going to be taking over this thing,” he said. “We’re getting older and I just wanted them to be a part of that, just to let them know what the true meaning of it is.”
With the group he worked with serving as the foundation, Burton said he wanted to start a community-wide children and youth liturgical praise dance and drill team.
Race and gender doesn’t matter, he emphasized.
“What my main focus with that is to get these kids so the streets don’t get them,” he said.
He said he wants the youth of this community to know that there is life outside of Springfield.
“You don’t have to stay in Springfield,” he said. “That’s not where I want you to be. I don’t want your mind focused on, ‘OK, I have to stay in Springfield, I have to get a job at INOAC or a local factory.’”
Burton said he wants the youth in the community to see different things. For instance, he mentioned considering a college that is out-of-state.
“My motto is, ‘I want to feed them, so they will grow and not starve them and let them die,’” he said.
Burton said the community-wide group would use Johnson Chapel AME Zion Church for now.
“If we grow out of it, hopefully I can get a facility that will let us (practice there),” he said.
He’s been a member at the church for 18 years, he said, proudly.
There he serves as the minister of music. He presides over the children and youth praise dance team, as well as the children and youth choir. He leads the adult choir, and the men’s chorus.
His background has also earned him seats on the children’s theatre board at the Opera House, as well as on the board of the African American Heritage Festival.
Race relations in Springfield, he said, have come a long way.
“As far as the politics side of it, now you have blacks that are on the board now,” he said. “Whether it has been school board or whether it has been on city council. When I was coming up as a child, I didn’t see that. I just did not see that at all. They may have run, but they didn’t get a seat.”
Political progress is a positive sign, he said.
“That shows me that that’s an improvement and that it’s moving. There’s movement,” he said.
Outside the sun shines and the weather feels like April instead of January. The street is still empty. The man with the key locks up, leaving the church with the echoes of his conversation of hope and ambition.