This is a monthly feature focused on “gems” in the Sea Coast Echo’s circulation area. This feature appears the first Wednesday of each month.
This month’s Gem was pushed out of the region by Hurricane Katrina, but pulled back to the Bay by a calling to help his hometown recover socially and culturally. The depth of his caring is matched only by the intensity of his determination.
Greg Barabino is a people person, reflected by his college education - psychology, and rehabilitation counseling - and his career with the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services. The route Greg took to return to the Bay and apply his skills and drive for the betterment of the community was circuitous and sometimes happenstance.
After graduating from Bay High, Greg’s college pursuits led him to Pearl River Community College, Jackson State, Southern University, and then graduate school in Minnesota, well prior to Katrina. It was there that Greg discovered his entrepreneurial spirit. Taking advantage of 17,000 students and a night club adjacent to the campus, he began organizing and promoting events.
“I started selling tickets out of my dorm room,” Greg said. “I then pursued it as a vocation.”
Greg continued promoting events when he moved to New Orleans from Minnesota. His success was derailed by Katrina and he was forced to move to Arkansas and Texas before finally returning to help rebuild Bay St. Louis and Waveland in 2008.
When Greg returned to the Bay he saw a need he could meet as an event organizer. What he saw the black community in the Bay needed, though, was more than events. What his hometown needed were events with a message.
“There was an incident between the police back in 2009, and some patrons at a local bar. I saw how they were being handled then, the race relations between the people in power and the people not in power, for whatever reason,” he said. “Basically I wanted to get everybody on their best behavior, having a good time with no violence. Just a purposeful event put together well, but also having the cultural aspect of having black music and black culture. I thought someone should set an example of how to have the same type of gatherings, put together well, with someone actually supervising to make sure everyone’s having a good time, or treated appropriately. You break the law, you go to jail.”
Greg has a unique approach for getting an audience.
“I try to give a lot of people insight through education and the easiest way is through entertainment and conversation. I call it ‘edutainment’ - education and entertainment at the same time,” Greg said. “I used to hold music and education events at MLK Park. I started supplying the music with a couple of friends and we did it for the community. I brought NASA out there, I brought Pearl River (Community College) out there, the WIN Jobs Center out there. So, we always have something productive. We had free waterslides for the kids last year for a month. I just try to provide people something to do. I’ve been doing it about ten years and just this last year was the first time I got any assistance. The Rotary Club sponsored some food and the NAACP was a sponsor.”
Greg’s focus is on being a mentor to kids to keep them on the right path. His success is hard to quantify.
“It’s been inconsistent and random because you don’t have a consistent place to keep building and measuring.”
Another hindrance is that MLK Park is a comfortable venue only for a few short months a year.
“It was usually a springtime thing and then it got too hot in the summer and during football season you can’t have anything on Sunday,” he said.
Greg has had more consistent results through tutoring programs.
“We tutor and provide mentors for third graders so they can pass the State test. Those things we can measure. This will be the third year of the program and our second year in the schools,” he said. “I partnered with the Waveland Police and on Saturdays we do tutoring at the police station. We serviced about 40 kids last year.”
Never one to be discouraged, Greg’s optimism and drive spark ideas for new projects for the betterment of the community.
“What I’m about to implement now are workshops. So all these things we need to address will be through workshops. We’re going to talk about finance, empowerment, and drugs. We’re going to bring experts in and educate people,” Greg said. “Maybe some people don’t even know where I’m coming from because they don’t go to seminars, they don’t watch what I watch, they don’t read what I read, so I have to bring the foundation in to open their minds. We want young people at the workshops. We can’t address young people’s issues if they’re not present and vocal. I think they’re sidetracked by pop culture and drugs. Others are disengaged in the rat race. If it doesn’t affect me, who cares if somebody gets shot? It’s a pity. And they move right on.”
Greg acknowledges his quest to improve lives is hindered by illegal drugs.
“Drugs have a great impact on our community. I see a lot of people who could be productive. They are incarcerated when it should be the best time of their life or unemployed because they can’t find gainful employment,” he said. “Drugs are the biggest impact on the quality of life for individuals who already had it hard.”
The immorality and lawlessness some black music bombards youth with is also a factor Greg addresses.
“Listen to the black music – degradation, death, disrespect. We have to offset that by exemplifying good examples,” Greg said.
While it’s a serious subject, Greg explains his music selection criteria with a laugh.
“If there are four or five felonies before you get to the chorus, I’m not playing it,” he said. “If somebody dies on a record, I’m not playing it. That’s my standard.”
When asked what the biggest need for black youth in Bay St. Louis is, Greg replied, “The biggest thing is we have no facility. Boys and Girls club is closed on weekends. There’s no air conditioning or heat in the gym so it’s either too hot or too cold. How many multi-million dollar yachts are out there in the harbor and you can’t get air conditioning for the kids?”
Greg went on to describe his vision for young people.
“I’d like to see a fully functioning youth facility on the weekends. Definitely to keep the kids off the streets in a place where they could get academic assistance, or educational classes. It could be a cooking class, history class, tutoring, or art,” Greg said. “Learn something they never learned and be exposed. A hang out spot where they can gather. They have to get social skills.”
Greg has his own wish list for adults.
“I’d like to see multiple businesses that have my culture represented. Whether it’s soul food or vegan, I can walk in there and see the nostalgia of my culture,” Greg said. “To see a picture of Martin Luther King or paintings that I can relate to. That would be a great dining experience other than what we have around here - hamburgers, seafood, and a picture of a boat.”
Greg added that the wants to see people capitalize on “our culture.”
“Black D.J.s playing black music,” he said. “I’m working on another project with a guy from the Grammy award-winning group, the Hot 8 Brass Band. We want to create a youth brass band. We have a backlog of people that want to hire a brass band. Learn the music and get paid while they’re doing it. While they’re doing that too they have easy access to New Orleans to learn the history of music roots. They’ll be able to get something out of New Orleans other than beignets and beads.”
Another hat Greg wears after his day job is serving as the president of the Hancock County chapter of the NAACP
“I’ve been the president for 7 years,” Greg said. “We deal with discrimination and racism and all that type stuff, but right is right and wrong is wrong and we definitely try to advocate. We don’t take everybody’s case, everybody’s gripe. It has to fall into a certain criteria.”
Greg’s penchant for improving lives through education extends to his role as the NAACP chapter president.
“My objective is to take the seven principles of Kwanzaa and implement them into your life,” he said. “For example, for those who don’t have a job, introduce them to economics. That’s what I try to do; alter your life or alter your mindset.”
While Greg desires to help people of all ages, it’s clear his heart is with helping the youth.
“How can we set up retired teachers to help those kids who are failing?” Greg said. “Let’s give them the best education we can give them. We can’t give them a facility, we can’t give them a sports program, so let’s give them an education.”
Greg Barabino is an ambitious man who said he doesn’t accept defeat. With so many balls in the air, some will rise and some will fall. How failure is dealt with determines chances for success in the future.
“I wake up every morning like yesterday never happened,” Greg said. “I hit the ground running. Whether it was successful or not successful, I get the same amount of energy like it never happened. I don’t rest on success. Like groundhog day I just wake up and do it again.”