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Iconic children’s TV host Fred Rogers often quoted his mother as saying in tough situations or emergencies, “Look for the helpers. There’s always someone who is trying to help.” Saint Leo alumnus Marlon Knight is one such helper.
At age 6, Knight became a caregiver. His great-grandmother came to live with him and his mother. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and her condition progressively declined to the point that she was bedridden. Young Knight came to her aid. “I would get her up, help her use a bedpan, clean her,” he said. In addition, when he was 11, he helped care for his grandfather, who had suffered a stroke.
A desire to help others led him to earn a bachelor’s degree in human services from Saint Leo University’s Savannah Education Center in 2016. “I have a giving heart,” he said. “I want to make a difference.”
Knight grew up helping older neighbors, getting them groceries and doing chores. “They said, ‘You have a spirit of discernment at an early age and a spirit to communicate with people,’” Knight recalled. His helpfulness was not limited to seniors, as he volunteered and worked with children, teens, and young adults. “At the daycare [center] my children attended, I would go and read stories, acting them out,” Knight said. “And I was Santa Claus for three years in a row.”
He was enrolled at Savannah Technical College, and friends there kept encouraging him to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “Some of my classmates were going to classes at Saint Leo at night,” he said. “When I walked in the door [of the Savannah Education Center], the staff was so welcoming. They were so helpful. I said, ‘I need to do this!’ I never stopped until I walked across the stage [at commencement].”
Human services was a good fit for Knight. As a child, his mother coached him, was strict about his penmanship, and the way in which he spoke and carried himself. She encouraged him to help others. “It was that upbringing,” he said, that led him to a degree based on aiding those in need.
He completed his internship at Park Place Outreach Inc. in Savannah, GA, working with at-risk youths. Park Place operates an emergency shelter for children ages 11 to 17, who may be runaways, placed there by the court, or in other vulnerable situations. That “real world” experience coupled with volunteer work with the Human Services Club, his classmates, and the Saint Leo faculty and staff was eye-opening. “We went out in the summertime, and the kids [from Park Place Outreach] were doing volunteering, passing out food, brown bag lunches, snacks, juices, and personal care items,” Knight said. “In human services, we were seeing the homeless, and we would count the homeless and pass out blankets. We would see babies in shelters. It was just so heartbreaking, but it was just a great experience.
“You are out in the community, and you get to see the less fortunate,” Knight continued, ‘those who look like me and you, who are going through a rough time.”
Since February 2017, he has been a probation officer with the Chatham County Juvenile Court, continuing to help youths. He recently finished working with a pilot program of Homeboy Industries. The eight-week work-readiness program paid young people a stipend and taught them work and life skills. “Their conversations were about their struggles, hardships, drugs, guns, life on the streets, life behind bars, and the people who they know who have died,” Knight said.
His key to reaching them was poetry. In addition to helping others since a young age, Knight has put pen to paper to write. He wrote rap songs at 12. Sharing those raps with young gang members helps break the ice.
In December, he spoke at the 3-on-3 basketball jamboree sponsored by the City of Savannah.
Addressing a gymnasium filled with boys and girls, he performed “Problems”, a rap song he wrote as a teen.
“I started off with that poem to show that I can relate to them,” Knight said of his rap. “Poetry is how I get people to listen.”
So many problems are chasing me,
I’m stuck with nowhere to turn,
who’s the blame if I never learn,
I’m full of a lot of stress,
nobody seems to know why,
I’m pressured by pain—so I get high,
hoping I can get by,
’cause on these streets ain’t nothing to do but violence-so I try to chill,
’cause if I’m caught in the crossfire—it’s so easy to be killed,
and if I die—some gonna cry,
but still life goes on . . .
His writing led him to attend the Sandhill Writers Retreat at University Campus. Encouraged by Dr. Susan Kinsella, now dean of the School of Education and Social Services, Knight submitted his poem “My Gifts” to Gianna Russo, assistant professor of English and creative writing. “What really motivated me was in the break area [of the Savannah Education Center], there is a picture of the campus,” Knight said. “I was intrigued by the beauty of the campus. I said, ‘I want to go there.’ It was one of the most beautiful sights. I wanted to get more involved with the writing, meet more writers, and learn techniques. I was excited to do something different.”
In downtime while he is sitting in court, Knight writes. “I write about life, love, spiritual growth,” he said. “The work inspires it, too.”
He translates what he sees and the stories of the young people he helps into poetry. He uses his gift of poetry to change young lives, still being the helper.
Header photo: Marlon Knight ’16 and daughters Marlaya and Chistiana (wearing tiara)