MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Bernie Blanks knew days ago that TV personality and entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey was going to attend the Whitesboro Reunion Festival on Saturday, but he didn’t tell anyone.
“It wasn’t hard to keep it a secret,” said the 75-year-old president of Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro Inc., the group that organizes the event each year. “We’re very appreciative of her coming to celebrate the 30th year. It means a lot to the Concerned Citizens and the community.”
But even he didn’t know she was going to speak to the crowds of people assembled under a white tent at the Martin Luther King Center. It was the speech made by township police Chief Christopher Leusner about the department’s focus on intervention, education and prevention that inspired her to share her thoughts, Blanks said.
The department has trained all their officers to change their thinking from, “What’s wrong with this kid?” to, “What happened to this kid?” Leusner said, adding the goal is to reduce the impact of childhood trauma through partnerships in the community.
Oprah Winfrey's rousing speech at Sunday night's Golden Globe Awards as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award has spurred talk of a potential presidential run by the 63-year-old billionaire. Winfrey is no stranger to the campaign trail, as residents of Whitesboro in Cape May County discovered when she stumped for the then-Newark mayor during the 25th annual Whitesboro Reunion in 2013. Winfrey's longtime partner, Stedman Graham, is a native of Whitesboro, and in 2008 Winfrey donated $1 million to the Concerned Citizens’ scholarship fund. Read this story about her 2013 appearance in Whitesboro.
Winfrey said she wasn’t going to make a speech, but she felt compelled to speak about the correlation between childhood trauma and health issues, criminal activity, behavioral issues and substance abuse, according to members of the crowd.
“I was happy to see her take the mic and acknowledge the chief of police and support him,” Blanks said. “I knew she had strong feelings about the subject.”
Winfrey attended the festival with her companion, Stedman Graham, who grew up in the historically black Whitesboro section of the township. They stopped to take pictures, sign autographs and speak with festival attendees.
Lillian Inez Palmer, a native of Whitesboro who was celebrating her 100th birthday at the reunion, caught Oprah’s eye as the centenarian came toward her with the aid of a walker.
“What advice do you have for all of us who are trying to get to be 100 years old?” Oprah asked her.
“Well, all I can say is, wash your face in cold water,” Inez Palmer replied.
Theresa Kennedy, 42, and her daughter Jacqui, both of Atlantic City, participated in the African fashion show earlier in the afternoon and called Winfrey’s speech “powerful.”
“She said, ‘What is the trauma in your life and why did that happen?’” Kennedy said. “When Oprah got up, it kind of validated what (Leusner) was saying.”
This was not Winfrey’s first visit to Whitesboro. In 2013, she attended the 25th annual Reunion Festival partly to campaign for then-Senate candidate Cory Booker. She also attended the 20th festival in 2008, donating $1 million to the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro’s scholarship fund.