Most of us have heard the phrase, “It takes a village …” For the Benjamins, this concept has been very real and dear to them.

The idea of “the village, where everyone is someone special” took shape over decades as the visions of a father and a mother, and that of their first-born son, merged. Arthur Benjamin Sr. and Mary A. Richardson were from Orangeburg, but their lives led them to New York on different paths for different reasons.

“My mother and father always worked to help individuals in the community. They wanted to bless others because of the opportunities God gave them,” said Arthur Benjamin Jr., who credits his parents’ shared faith in God as the binding agent that brought them together as a “beautiful family.”

“My parents had old-school standards. I am glad that my father taught me how to become a man and how to act like a man with character,” said Benjamin, who became a corrections officer after his younger brother got himself into a situation.

“It hurt me because I was the big brother and I lost him to the streets on my watch. He ended up in the penitentiary system,” he said, adding that he prayed to God to put him in a position to help people who ended up like his brother who still claims his innocence.

“Be mindful what you ask for,” said Benjamin Jr. who became employed by the New York City Department of Corrections and worked there from 1988 until 1999.

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Around the year 2000, he relocated to the Palmetto State to be with his wife, Yolanda, and their children. He has served in many roles from corrections officer of the Beaufort County Detention Center to a corporal at the S.C. Department of Corrections, and director of the Jasper County Detention Center.

There have been many people in his “village” that have served as mentors and have supported him along his journey from entry-level officer to management level positions. There were many challenges along the way, but he praises those individuals and God for bringing him to where he is today.

“My mother had trials and tribulations in her path as she was growing up. She didn’t have it easy, family-wise,” he said.

Life for Mary A. Richardson as she grew up in Orangeburg was fraught with confusion and hurt. Born on March 7, 1947, this remarkably resilient woman, who is now 74, reflected upon her childhood.

“Life was very hard here. My birth mother was killed,” she said, indicating that she wasn’t told this truth until much later in life. She was allowed to live with an aunt, who she believed to be her mother, and a grandmother, but they did not embrace her as family.

“I always had to eat out on the back porch while my three sisters and two brothers ate at the table in the kitchen; all I ever got was chicken backs and chicken feet.

“I never understood why, so one day I asked. My mother (aunt) told me that it was because I was a big girl and belonged outside,” Mary recounted with a catch in her voice.

She endured tearful days of sadness in prayerful questioning. In fact, she still does not quite understand how family, which was supposed to comfort and support her, could treat her as an outcast. Weighed down by her circumstances, she could have just given up. But by the grace of God and other caring adults in the community, she had someone to talk to, someone who lifted her up, someone who fed her and someone who told her that she would be someone someday.

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“I kept studying in school and reading the Bible and one day I met a lady named Jeraldine Bradley from the neighborhood. She told me not to worry, that she would make sure I had something to eat if I stop by each day after school, and she did.

“She told me that I was different, that I cared about people. She was an angel of God and I consider her my godmother.

Bradley, who was only a few years older than Mary, served as a caregiver for others in their homes, and as she listened to and shared with her, the young girl became interested in the opportunity to work as a domestic helper herself. As soon as she was old enough, she found a type of work relationship that would give her experience for the next phase of her journey.

“I got a job working with a Caucasian woman on 301. She was a hairdresser. She would come for me after school and help me with my homework. She was so good to me.”

Mary began keeping a journal in which she would record her feelings when she was mistreated by her family. This pouring out of feelings and working through the pain led her to a strong conviction to seek a life that would serve to help children who found themselves in unfortunate situations.

“I started writing notes to myself when they’d make me upset, and I’d pray that one day I’m going to be a social worker for children. I won’t let them be neglected or abused.

Determined to escape a toxic home life, and armed with the experience she’d gained, at age 17, Mary found an agency that would place her in a family in New York as a live-in domestic helper. She had not yet graduated high school, but her level of intelligence and mature demeanor made her appear older.

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“I told the lady that I was 20 years old and wanted a ‘sleeping in’ job. When she asked for my birth certificate, I lied and said that it had burned in a fire. When she wanted a note from school with my information, I wet the spot where my age was and accidentally ripped the paper, but she accepted it anyway.

Within a few weeks, Mary was on a Greyhound bus on her way to the big city with a letter in hand and instructions of how to get from the bus terminal to the agency in New York.

Walking off the bus, as she looked around at all the people, the small-town girl was overwhelmed. There were hundreds of people moving about and men began soliciting her, offering her a place to stay. She brushed off their advances and remained steadfast in following through on her plan.

She found a policeman to ask how to get to the A-train. But instead of putting her on the train by herself, he decided to look out for her well-being and personally escorted her to the agency to protect her from harm.

While in New York, she began working in a home on Long Island and later moved to a home in Queens.

“I went to work for Mrs. Trump in Queens. Her husband was a real estate man making houses all over the place. I used to wash her hair and braid it up. I loved her,” Mary said.

After some time had passed, Mary said she told Mrs. Trump that she planned to move to Brooklyn where she knew some people from South Carolina and wanted to finish high school and enroll in college.

“She gave me five 100-dollar bills when she was only supposed to give me $90. She drove me to the Long Island Railroad.

“I called a lady named Carrie Huff to pick me up. I knew her nephew, Arthur, from Orangeburg. He didn’t like me because I dressed like an old lady all the time. That was the only clothes I had there. These guys from Orangeburg wanted you to get with them and have babies and I wasn’t getting caught up in that.”

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In Brooklyn, Mary worked in several different places, including a factory where she said she quickly made supervisor, and a laundry, where she spent two months sleeping in the back after the owner hired her to lock up each night and open the doors each morning.

“I started praying and praying. I had heard of Medgar Evers College, so I walked about six blocks up to the school and I was just looking around when a lady got out of her car and asked if she could help me.

“I told her that I didn’t graduate high school but I wanted to know what I had to do to get into the college.

“That lady said, ‘My name is Betty Shabazz.’ I didn’t know who that was, but I followed her. She told me that she could get me into Prospect High School. She said, ‘I’ll help you and I’ll make sure you graduate this year.’ This was in March, and I graduated in June,” Mary said.

“Dr. Shabazz, who I learned later was Malcolm X’s wife, helped me get enrolled and told me to continue on my mission. I told her I wanted to be a social worker and I want to make a difference with the children,” she said.

While attending college, Mary began gaining experience in her chosen field. She acted as a foster care worker with St. Vincent’s Foster Care where she would visit homes and check on the welfare of the children.

Life began moving really fast for her as a young lady in her 20s. She was working and attending college, and became reacquainted with Arthur, from Orangeburg. He had become a police officer and they quickly formed a romantic relationship. She accepted his proposal and became Mrs. Arthur Benjamin. Within six months of their betrothal, she became pregnant with a daughter.

After 18 months, the Benjamins were pregnant again, this time with a son, Arthur Benjamin Jr. In the coming years, the Benjamins were blessed with yet another son.

Even as she worked diligently to maintain her own household, Mary was determined to do even more for neglected and abused children, so she took and passed the test to become a case worker and was selected to go to the academy to learn more about child protective services. She would be responsible for visiting homes and investigating neglect and abuse cases.

“I had old-people sense, so cases were assigned to me and practically every one of them was a removal: sexual abuse, babies born addicted to drugs. I would go all day trying to find grandmas, aunts and doing clearance on them so that they could be certified as a foster parent. Most of them panned out. That was good because I knew my cases were safe with relatives.

Still seeking more education, Mary said she volunteered at a prevention agency run by Commissioner William Bell. There she worked with parents who had been addicted to drugs or who had been accused of child abuse or neglect. She was now attending Brooklyn College and her volunteerism would help her gain more credits.

Mary continued on her educational journey earning a master’s degree in education and a master’s degree in social work specializing in abuse, neglect and investigations. After many years working in the field, Bell invited her to help develop a program, specifically for adolescents, now known as the Family Assessment Program (FAP), which covers five boroughs in New York City. She was later promoted as the Queens Borough director of the FAP over the PINS Unit Office. PINS stands for People In Need of Supervision.

Achieving her ultimate career position of Queens Borough director, Mary retired in 2017. She and her late husband, Arthur Benjamin Sr., founded The Village, a place “Where Everyone is Someone Special.”

“In order to be where you are, you have to go through some trials and tribulations,” Benjamin said

“My sister was involved in domestic violence. She was shot in the head, and I was told that she would not live.

“To this day, she is still living. I made a promise to God that if he did that for me, I would be more involved with domestic violence. It is still a passion for me to this date,” he said.

Benjamin, who had experienced a younger brother being incarcerated and later a sister who was nearly killed, was dealt another life-altering blow, but his “village” of supportive individuals stepped in to hold him up.

“When my father passed, I was very depressed. I wanted to commit suicide,” he admitted.

“I overcame that with the great family support system that I had. I expressed my feelings and worked through it,” said Jr., who revealed that as a corrections officer and center director, he had the unfortunate experiences of witnessing staff and inmate suicides.

“One thing about the directors — we are here, and everyone leans on us a pillar. But as directors we often don’t have anyone to lean on to express our feelings when we are at that point,” he said.

In his leadership role in corrections, he has had the opportunity to be on the development and planning of key programs.

“I formatted a family-type structure with Beaufort County, Hampton County, Colleton County, Allendale County and Bamberg County, along with Jasper. All of the directors network and come with different solutions. We express things we go through and reach out to others as well,” Benjamin said.

“When one of us is in need, we come together as a family, and we help each other out,” he said.

“I wanted to give something back to the people in the corrections/detention system. We don’t always get that recognition, that pat on the back that we should as first responders,” Benjamin said.

“We wanted to do something for the ‘unsung heroes,’” he said.

“My mother and I combined our visions of ‘The Village.’ We are showing tribute to those in public safety or corrections, social service, faith-based leaders and senior citizens. We recognize them for the good that they have done in the community or in their professional status as paving the way for tomorrow,” he said.

“Also, individuals who are coming up and need an extra push, we let them know we got their back. We are there as a coach or a sponsor for them,” he said.

“I always said that if children get into trouble, they don’t always need to be incarcerated, they need to be mentored and taught a better way. I have never seen a child as bad, just as someone who made a bad choice,” said Mary, advocating for education in the criminal justice system.

On Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, at the Broughton Event Venue, she and her son, Arthur Benjamin Jr. were proud to recognize several South Carolinians who they credit as individuals who helped to guide them and support them on their paths. Among the honored speakers and guests at their celebration titled, “Recognizing Community Pioneers and Exceptional Leaders,” were Orangeburg Mayor Michael C. Butler, and Pastors Willie and Jennifer Robinson of Greater Works Ministries.

In addition, the following were in attendance as honorees: Willie Bamberg, retired director of the Orangeburg-Calhoun Regional Detention Center; Quandara Grant, director of Beaufort County Detention Center; Kelvin G. Jones, director of Hampton County Detention Center; Tonia Capers-Jones, director of Allendale County Detention Center; Latarcha K. Wilson, director of Bamberg County Detention Center; and Deloris B. Roberts-Charlton, retired director of Barnwell Detention Center.

“It’s an honor to have someone respect you enough to give you recognition,” said Bamberg, who said that he and other S.C. jail administrators played a role in training Benjamin.

“It’s great to be acknowledged,” said Capers-Jones, echoing the sentiment of appreciation expressed by many of the honorees.

“This is such an honor. Not only corrections officers don’t really get acknowledged, but to be a woman and a director in corrections, I think this is really awesome,” Wilson said.

“It is very important to collaborate here with all these different directors from the various counties. We never know when we might need each other,” Butler said.

As a special recognition at the program, Butler issued a proclamation designating Aug. 29 as Ms. Jeraldine Bradley Day in the City of Orangeburg in honor of Ms. Benjamin’s godmother who marked her 80th birthday this year.

“Ms. Bradley spent her life as a caregiver. She always cooks for anyone who needs a meal. Not only did she need to become a caregiver to the elderly, but to younger people,” read Butler.

Bradley said, “God put this on my heart to sing a little bit. ‘I’ve been through the fire. I’ve been through the flood. Broken in pieces and left all alone, but through it all, God blessed me. God kept me and I still have praise inside of me.’”

“No matter your race, your status, you are someone special, so keep dreaming. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something,” Mary A. Richardson Benjamin said.

The “Village” is about faith, love and education. According to Yolanda Benjamin, this recognition celebration should be the first among many. The Benjamins want to form relationships with local leaders and the colleges and universities to collaborate and mentor those students going into service professions.

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