Iowa City resident Jaron Varner will be recognized for his work mentoring African-American youth in the Iowa City community at the first annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Bell Ringing and Candle Lighting Award Ceremony, taking place today at Grant Wood Elementary Schoo at 1 p.m. The program honors African-American community members for their dedication and hard work, and awards will be presented by Royceann Porter, Dave Loebesack and Rod Sullivan.
Now 37, Varner has lived in Iowa City for almost half his life after being raised in Detroit where he was involved in gangs by the time he was a teenager.
His experience in Detroit — where he dealt drugs and was, at one point, shot after a friend accidentally discharged a firearm — led him to his work today. As did growing up without a father.
An Army medic in Vietnam, his father came back to the U.S. addicted to drugs and eventually was beaten to death by Detroit police at the age of 32.
“I used to think 32 was old. Now I’m 37 and I am so thankful to have my son and family.”
Varner bounced between 13 different schools in Detroit and Fairfield, Iowa, before he graduated from City High School in Iowa City. Now he’s getting a college degree in English and Pre-Law at the University of Iowa and is set to graduate in May.
And even though he’s been through plenty of hardship, including a stroke two years ago due to sleep apnea, he stays positive and gives thanks to God for his life and the opportunity to see his son every day.
“Society teaches us to be about me, me, me. But God made us to be connected to each other,” he said.
Varner has worked with school programs that help at-risk youth, and now he’s making a push for his dream, a non-profit called The Renaissance Center. The project will be a neighborhood drop-in recreational and multicultural enrichment center, he says.
Learning from his experiences, Varner aims to educate and shepherd at-risk young people towards becoming contributing citizens of the community.
“It takes a wolf to catch a wolf,” he said.
Varner said he’s motivated to make a change and give back to the city where he became a man.
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The Renaissance Center will be a development initiative that helps youth create opportunities for personal growth and civic engagement through after-school programming, community stewardship and academic leadership.
Varner has secured non-profit status for his program and is currently looking for property to build a neighborhood center that he hopes will house a gym for athletics, a performing arts division and a music studio together with places for tutoring and mentoring. He has the blueprints for the structure and is seeking collaborators for funding and staffing the place.