PHOENIXVILLE - Every year the award recipients of the Phoenixville Community Prayer Breakfast are a surprise to the audience.

Social Concerns Committee Chairman Donald J.L. Coppedge likes the recipients to experience the element of surprise.

This year, much to his surprise, Coppedge received the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. The Emma Valenteen Compassionate Award recipient was Neal Saunders. The 19th annual prayer breakfast was held on Saturday at the Phoenixville Area Middle School cafeteria in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year's theme was forgiveness. The guest speaker was Rev. Nathan Coleman, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church.

Before presenting the award, committee member Mayor Leo Scoda said, 'We gather here in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King. Just look around this room and what you'll see is the beauty of Phoenixville. What you will see is the community of Phoenixville. You have all of the different racial groups, ethnic groups represented here. You have business leaders. You have church leaders. You have educators and top administrators of the school district. Represented here are the hospital, the library and the Christian college.'

He described the recipient as someone who has been a 'pillar of our community for many years.'

'He is a religious person with a deep commitment to justice, fairness and equality in the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,' Coppedge said. 'He has helped to make Phoenixville a better place to live, work and raise a family. With a strong constant voice, he has been addressing the needs of those most in need, much like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.'

Scoda said Coppedge was the only person in town to receive a letter of congratulations about retirement from President Ronald Reagan.

In addition to the Social Concerns Committee, Coppedge has been involved with the YMCA, Phoenixville Homes Inc., the Housing Authority of Chester County and various other organizations.

Coppedge is a former chairman of HACC and served as a liasion between the authority who is redeveloping Fairview Village, a low-income housing development in Phoenixville, and the stakeholders of the community. The original Fairview Village was deteriorated and demolished last year. A new development is being constructed in its place.

Ruby Armour also took time to tell attendees she and Coppedge were the only two original members of the Social Concerns Committee.

Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-19), State Rep. Warren Kampf and Chester County Commissioner Cathi Cozzone were in attendance to show their appreciation for Coppedge and the other award recipients. The three participated in the award presentation for Coppedge to share their congratulations.

In response to the award, Coppedge said, 'They pulled wool over my eyes,' and the attendees laughed.

With a shaky voice, he said he wished his mother could have been alive to see him receive the award.

'She was the driving force' behind his wanting to become involved in the community, Coppedge said.

Irene Lisinski presented the Emma Valenteen Compassionate Award. Valenteen, who had two children who died, initiated the local chapter of the Compassionate Friends which serves as a support group of those who have lost loved ones.

Lisinksi gave the definition of compassion as someone who as empathy for others.

She said Saunders embodies everything that he does and is continuing Valenteen's legacy.

Saunders is a member of Bethel Baptist Church and has worked with at risk children and youth in the juvenile system. He has served as a volunteer coach with the Phoenixville Marion Youth Club and served as the basketball commissioner from 2003 to 2005.

He was involved with Phoenixville Area Positive Alternatives since its start.

Saunders sometimes travels throughout the United States to help others who are dealing with a child's death or a close relative's death. He has been a member of Compassionate Friends since 1998.

He knows what it's like to lose a child. His son passed away too soon and a Phoenixville park, C'Jon Saunders Park, is named in his memory.

After receiving the award, Saunders said thank you and said he was surprised.

'Compassionate Friends is an organization that is close to our hearts,' he said. 'My life has been saved by my savior, Jesus Christ, but Compassionate Friends has shown me the way to go on.'

Three students were recognized for winning the annual essay contest. The rules were changed this year so students could be even more creative with their submissions.

Elementary School award winner Ella Reiger submitted a video showing a girl who felt left out and mad when she saw her friends playing outside without her.

India Knight, a student from PAMS, received an award for her poem, 'Forgiveness.'

High School student Ana Tadeo read her emotional short story, 'Daddy Come Home,' about forgiving a father that overcame his issues.

Superintendent Dr. Alana Fegley thanked the community for their support of Phoenixville Area Middle School saying that it will be a 'place for students to grow throughout their career.'

Father Koshy Matthews of St. Peters Episcopal Church gave the invocation. The Rev. Eva Johnson of Evansburg Methodist Church delivered the Community Unity Prayer and the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Krommes of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church gave the benediction.

Bethel Baptist Church's Inspirational Choir performed during the breakfast.

Rev. Nathan Coleman delivered a message focusing on the need for forgiveness in our society. He spoke about Dr. King's commitment to nonviolence and love. Although it's been 45 years since King was assassinated, 'there is still work for us to do,' Coleman said.

'Forgiveness reduces drama,' he said. 'We like the drama and holding onto something negative. It makes us in control.'

Coleman said saying sorry takes courage and when people forgive, they are closer than they were before.

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