On a very cold day in March of last year, I was a volunteer in Project Forward, a city-wide gathering at Hillcrest Community Center meant to raise awareness of youth-oriented programs. One of the biggest reasons I participated that day was because of its location at Hillcrest where I grew up just a few blocks south on Virginia Ave. The Highland Park area was, at the time, rather underserved when it came to things like after-school programs and summer activities. Today, the East Topeka Learning Center and Project Forward are changing that. Another reason I was excited to participate was the event’s organizer, SJ Hazim.
I was first introduced to SJ years ago through a mutual friend, who recommended we work on music together. SJ was known to me as an iconic local musician, responsible for inspiring much of today’s Topeka rap scene. Back when we first met, he was still working on his own musical endeavors, and starting to lead the much younger talent around him. The thing that struck me most with SJ, was that he is always looking out for the youth – which included myself. All of his efforts to help youth through music spilled over into what is now Project Forward, a massive push to raise awareness for programs that continue to provide for the next generation of dreamers and doers.
As an adult, I myself have taken many opportunities to volunteer for youth based programs, but Hazim goes above and beyond the efforts of most, by bridging the gap between the motive and the mission. Through his countless hours of attending meetings, sitting on committees, and raising awareness, the end result is the focused and organized aim of Project Forward.
“Project Forward is an innovative way for mentorship recruitment and raising money for the not-for-profits the program is partnered with,” Hazim described. The program aims to change the fabric of the community by finding other leaders like himself, and giving them the resources to become mentors across a variety of subjects. Project Forward highlights other organizations such as The Boys + Girls Club, SENT Topeka, AIM5, United Way and Topeka Metro. The first public event will be the annual Bridge to Bridge 5K on April 13. Receiving support from the city and its larger ‘Momentum 2022’ program as well, Hazim aims to bring more community pride and engagement out of Topeka. When I asked Hazim what his motivation was to start Project Forward, he simply said he had the “gift of bringing people together.”
Project Forward exemplifies this not just by bringing people together, but bringing entire organizations together so they can work more cohesively towards a common goal. Not limited by location, Project Forward is a city-wide initiative that aims to put all of our neighborhoods and districts on the same page as well.
Aside from having considerably more grey hairs in his beard than I remember, there isn’t much different about Hazim today from when I first met him. His motive has always been genuinely about helping other people, especially when it comes to the youth. While Project Forward is technically just one year old, it is undoubtedly the result of a lifetime effort from people like Hazim who are ready to see Topeka be at its best.