by Monica Mendoza
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE Colo. — Tech. Sgt. Chamara Cantrell, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Schriever Dental Clinic for the 21st Medical Group, grew up with her parents’ determination that she would not become a “statistic.”
The East Coast city she was raised in was famous for its statistics and Sergeant Cantrell knew them all: No. 1 in the nation for teenage pregnancy ages 15 to 19; more than half of the teen boys would be arrested for drug-related crimes; and in one Baltimore neighborhood, 100 percent of the calls to emergency services were about domestic violence.
Sergeant Cantrell was the guest speaker Jan. 26 at the Peterson Air Force Base “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Service” at the base chapel. Dr. King organized non-violent civil rights activities in the early 1960s and was the principal leader of the historic civil rights march on Washington, D.C. in 1963. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill designating Dr. Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday, to be observed on the third Monday of January.
Sergeant Cantrell told the group that gathered for the Peterson event that she has not written any books. She doesn’t have a Ph.D., and she did not march on Washington or participate in sit-ins or boycotts.
But, she was raised to serve, to give back to her community, and to be a good friend and neighbor. Her parents sent her to an all-girl high school, they monitored her telephone calls and they kept track of her activities, always mindful of those big city statistics, she said.
“Are you familiar with Dr. King’s quote: ‘Everyone can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t know have to make your subject and verb agree to serve, you only need a heart of grace and a soul generated by love,’” Sergeant Cantrell said.
So that is what she did. As a teen, she helped the elderly in her neighborhood, volunteered at the youth recreation center and shoveled snow for her neighbors.
In 1995, she joined the U.S. Air Force.
“Although I was scared and all the Air Force traditions were new to me, the one thing that wasn’t new was community service,” she said.
Over the past 15 years, as an Airman, she has helped homeless, tutored children, collected shoes for African children, and helped families of deployed Airmen. Her efforts might only impact a few, she said, but she hopes that she will inspire her children, family and coworkers to serve in their communities.
Thinking back on Dr. King’s words, Sergeant Cantrell said: “I ask you, will you choose to be great? Will you serve?”
Col. Stephen N. Whiting, 21st Space Wing commander, said Sergeant Cantrell’s story echoes this year’s Dr. King Day theme: remember, celebrate and act. In his most famous speech, Dr. King dreamed that Mississippi “sweltering with the heat of injustice” would be transformed into a state of freedom and justice.
“You may not know this about me, but I grew up in Ocean Springs, Mississippi,” Colonel Whiting said. “While it was certainly not a perfect state during my childhood, it was not a Mississippi of sweltering injustice that Dr. King referred to. Through his legacy and his work, my childhood was spent in a state that was progressing closer to the dream that Dr. King had.”
There is more work to do, Colonel Whiting said.
“But, it is remarkable how the country has fundamentally changed in our lifetimes based on the work of Dr. King,” he said.
It also took a few mothers and fathers like Sergeant Cantrell’s who were determined not to let their children become statistics.