The Rev. Ronald S. James has been an active member of the Williamsport community for more than 26 years. An ordained minister, James is the preacher at the Church of Enoch House of Worship, 1643 Memorial Ave. He has been involved with youth and prison ministries, worked directly with several mayors and chiefs of police, and was a member of Mayor Steven Cappelli's advisory committee in 1996. Together with the late William Sechler he formed the Williamsport Lycoming Crime Commission (formerly the Williamsport Crime Commission). He also has played an integral role in the development and sustenance of several Neighborhood Watch programs throughout the city.
Despite nearly three decades of effort, James said that approaching things from a purely political standpoint can been discouraging.
"It seems to go in spurts then just dies," he said in a phone interview, adding "everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon at first, then all of a sudden things just end."
To James, the biggest problem facing Williamsport is one he knows firsthand. A recovered addict, as well as someone who spent the first half of his life in some of the more dangerous sections of Philadelphia, James recognized early on the signs of a community with heroin problems.
"You call it heroin," James said, "I call it the monster; the beast. It doesn't just destroy the person, it destroys whole cities and towns. I didn't leave the jaws of hell in Philadelphia and come to the hills of heaven in Williamsport just to see the same things happening here. I knew we had to put up some sort of a fight."
James said he saw the need for a program that directly targeted an age group most susceptible to heroin: 18-to-25-year-olds. In addition to the preventative resources that aim to educate children before they encounter heroin, and the reactive programs that treat and rehabilitate addicts, James wanted to devise an outlet that would give at-risk youth an alternative to drug use.
"So many existing programs are set up for young children," James said. "That's not the whole problem right now. They're not the ones carrying the guns and they're not the ones selling the drugs. I knew we needed to devise a way to explain to these [at-risk] kids that they have a God-given talent that they can tap into. They can sing, they can rap; there's no need for them to use drugs, shoot people, or act like fools."
James explained that his hope is to put even a one or two percent "dent" in local crime rates and ultimately create a domino effect. "I feel it's my duty to set some sort of standard for the city that I live in - to show that we're not going to tolerate this and we're not going to take it lying down," he said.
The idea came to James while he was watching the TV show "America's Got Talent."
"There's a lot of talent in Williamsport! CAPPA [Community Alliance for Progressive Positive Action] has already shown that. I want to go beyond just showcasing our talent; I want to give kids something to look forward to."
"Williamsport's Got Talent" sets out to "use the performing arts for crime prevention," James read from a promotional letter sent to potential judges of the tryouts and final performance. Mayor Gabriel J. Campana and Representative Rick Mirabito have agreed to be among the judges for "Williamsport's Got Talent"
The program includes a series of tryouts and will culminate with final performances. The next "Williamsport's Got Talent" will be held Jan. 11 at Pennsylvania College of Technology's Klump Academic Center Auditorium located on the corner of Susquehanna and West Third streets. Subsequent "Williamsport's Got Talent" performances will be held Feb. 8, March 8 and April 26.
"We're not trying to line our pockets and get rich off of this," James said. "We're trying to reach our children."
As an added incentive to potential performers, James is currently pursuing talent scouts to watch the final performances for standout acts and performers. He also stressed another point: "I want to get this very clear: this is not a 'black event'; this is a children's event."
The next audition for the Jan. 11 performance will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Pajama Factory, 1307 Park Ave. Registration forms will be available at the tryouts. Performers should not use profanity and are asked to keep lyrics and subject matter clean.
For more information, contact James at 570-326-9088 or 570-974-9009, or Rodney Anderson at 570-974-1778.
James encourages interested performers to consider parent-and-child duets for this round of "Williamsport's Got Talent."