Joe Paris has spent two decades helping steer kids away from the dangers of substance abuse. His Kidsummit Against Drugs, an outreach program at the Southeast Community Center, has helped an estimated 15,000 children.
Their smiles tell the story.
The walls in Joe Paris’ office bear poster-sized frames filled with photos of hundreds of smiling children, some of the 15,000 who have benefited from the Kidsummit Against Drugs outreach program.
From 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, Kidsummit will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a party at the Southeast Community Center at 1400 Sherrick Rd. SE.
“Our name is ‘Kidsummit,’ but our mission is to help families with children,” Paris said. “The truth is, if you don’t make an impact on the decision-makers in the household, you’re not going to be as successful as you want to be.”
Paris said he began the program because he wanted to steer young people away from the pitfalls that led him into substance abuse as a young man.
It took a spiritual awakening to change his trajectory. Paris joined the God-Given Church of God in Christ and launched Kidsummit at the encouragement of his pastor, the Rev. Ace Gillems Sr., who regards him as a leader in the community and at church.
“He’s a dedicated person, whatever the path is set before him,” Gillems said. “He’s very committed. Whatever he does, he does it at a high level of proficiency. He loves children and people.”
Though he never had written a grant, Paris’ proposal to educate kids about the dangers of substance abuse earned a $10,000 grant in 1991 from the former Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board, now an arm of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Stark County.
John Aller, executive director of the mental health board, said Paris’ dedication to under-served children is the reason behind the program’s success.
“He’s really shepherded Canton’s kids, to provide relative, dynamic preventative services for the past 20 years,” Aller said. “He’s participated in numerous initiatives and has even helped other agencies that could be considered as competitors for (funding). He works tirelessly on anything to benefit Stark County kids and the community at large.”
Aller said Paris often goes beyond the call of duty.
“He has a connection with kids,” he said. “He just wraps his arms around the kids he serves. It’s an example of good, old-fashioned social work.”
“He’s very focused, and he requires your best,” added Vicki Armstead, a drug-prevention educator at Kidsummit for 10 years. “He’s a great boss.”
Though Kidsummit is patterned after Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program in the 1980s, its success always has been in its ability to modify its programming when necessary, Paris said.
Kidsummit’s first after-school program was at Belden School under then-Principal Mary Hatchett, who currently serves on the board.
Page 2 of 2 - One of Kidsummit’s most popular events is its Father’s Day March. Paris calls the event a public way for fathers to express support of their children in a “user-friendly” way.
“I try hard to engage men,” he said. “I was raised by my mother. My father spent a lot of time in the ‘Big House,’ so I know what a loss it was. A mother can do a whole lot of things, but it’s difficult for her to teach a boy how to cross over into manhood.”
Paris said because of his father’s example, he sometimes found himself on the wrong side of the law as a youth. “I thought it was how a man was supposed to behave,” he said.
He credits three men, Stephen Pressley, Willie Anthony and Wilbert Coleman, with helping to set him straight.
Paris, who plans to retire soon, said Kidsummit is an example of what can be done by a small group of committed people.
“You don’t have to be a mega-agency to provide education about alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse,” he said. “We want (children) to know, ‘It could happen to you.’ ”