Community group re-names workforce program to honor the coronavirus victim
By Macollvie J. Neel and Onz Chery
At 6-foot-1, 300 pounds, Gibbs ‘Bigg Gibbs’ Seraphin was not hard to spot in a crowd. But his size was only part of the reason that Seraphin, who died in March from coronavirus, captivated attention.
“My brother was a character,” said Alleon Seraphin. “It doesn’t matter where he went, his presence was felt. He was full of stories, full of life. He lived in today, but he always tried to give you a vision of what tomorrow should bring if you put in the right efforts.”
When Gibbs Seraphin, 42, died March 29 from COVID-19, the news rattled many central Flatbush residents and local construction professionals, among other groups. As one of the first deaths of well-known residents in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, his death brought home to many how deeply the disease might ravage the community.
As news of his death spread, #ripgibbs on Instagram tracked expressions of disbelief — ‘this is getting really crazy’ — mixed with fond recollections — ‘he always kept everyone laughing,’ ‘always showed love and positivity.’
“Sometimes, I don’t believe it,” said close friend Samuel M. Pierre, executive director of Haitian American Caucus—US. “I talked to him every single day. I feel like he’s going to call me and be like, ‘Bro, we got work to do today.’
“We had a vision, and we started to see that vision come to life,” Pierre added.
Seeking a better outcome
Gibbs Seraphin’s vision for a better tomorrow began taking shape around 2012, his brother said.
It was steeped in intent for a better outcome, whether big or small, in what he saw around his East 21st Street and Dorchester Road neighborhood.
That intent motivated the construction worker to speak with neighborhood drug dealers, ex-cons, and others who had been through the criminal justice system about turning their lives around. Often, that intent led the former high school football player to intervene with police officers on behalf of would-be suspects.
Alleon Seraphin recalls getting a frantic call one day from his mother. She told him his brother had been arrested, so Alleon Seraphin rushed to Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct.
“I got there, and he was laughing with the police officers, on his way out,” said Alleon Seraphin, explaining that his brother had not been booked. “His personality was just enormous. He’d take on strong, argumentative conversations with police, and he was able to calm down the situation.”
“That was my brother,” he said of the father-of-three. “He cared about other people other than about himself.”
Putting people to work
Eventually, his need to help others led Gibbs Seraphin to found a program that trains participants on Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) safety standards to work in construction.
“Gibbs came to HAC for us to help him with an OSHA-30 card,” Pierre recalls. “He didn’t like the program we referred him to. I accidentally said, ‘If you don’t like it, why don’t you start your own?’ And he actually took me up on that offer.”
Alleon Seraphin said construction made sense because Gibbs Seraphin had always been in that field.
“He said, ‘Let me do something for the community, but let me use my existing resources,’” the younger Seraphin said. “He went to people and said, ‘You can actually put down the drugs, put down the gun, and do something else, where you don’t have to worry about watching your back, worried about the police.”
When fully formed, the Workforce Development Program under the aegis of HAC sought to give the area’s mainly black and Latinx residents a means to earn a living. Many of the participants have been incarcerated, lived in shelters, aged out of foster care, been involved with gangs, or suffered from mental illness. Gibbs Seraphin served as director.
Pierre said the program has trained 220 people, with support from corporate sponsor LYFT.
“He actually had people on parole, on house arrest — he dealt with all types of people,” Pierre said. “Gibbs was willing to do that work.”
Creating a legacy
Ultimately, Gibbs Seraphin’s work was essential in diversifying the construction industry, community leaders say.
Councilmember Farah N. Louis, for whom Gibbs campaigned across the 45th district, said in a statement, “Gibbs lived a life full of intention and tremendous service.”
“His legacy will live on through his groundbreaking work to establish a local hub where all people — regardless of age, gender, or experience — can learn a trade,” she said.
In recognition of Gibbs Seraphin’s impact, HAC is renaming the program he led as the Gibbs J. Seraphin Workforce Development Program. Pierre said a ceremony is not yet possible because of social distancing restrictions, but the paperwork and brand graphics are complete.
“As long as HAC will exist, there will be a Gibbs Seraphin Workforce Development Program,” Pierre said. “He always wanted more for his people. It was really about opening doors for them, and that’s why he’ll always be remembered as a hero in our community.”
Gibbs Seraphin is survived by his children — Heavon-Gibbs, 19, Urhyness, 5, and Urexcellence-Noah, 1; siblings Alleon, Marc, Jules, and Elsie; and numerous family members and friends.
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