I moved back from Texas to Arkansas in 2001, and the kids in Eudora were talking about “YO.” I was like, “What’s that?” They told me, “It stands for the Youth Opportunity program at Phoenix Youth and Family Services.” I went to see what the buzz was about. I immediately liked what I saw and signed up.
I was 20-years-old at the time. I wasn’t working, so YO gave me somewhere to go and something to do every day–it literally kept me out of the streets. Being a good respectable participant, a staff person by the name of Mrs. Shirley Thomas told Phoenix’s Founder and Executive Director Mrs. Toyce Newton about me. She recommended that I become a youth advocate. After meeting and talking with Mrs. Toyce, I immediately liked her too. The first time I talked to Mrs. Toyce, she asked, “Do you have any kids and are you married?” I told her that I had kids, but I was not married yet. She asked me why I hadn’t married my kids’ mother yet–she even offered to pay for the wedding.
I became a youth advocate and went on doing the right things, from being in Life Skills and other classes, to getting employed by Phoenix to teach classes. I upgraded my attire to a more professional look and opened up my first bank account. I also had more positive peer-to-peer conversations, taking what I learned from the youth I was teaching to the administration at Phoenix. Other YO program participants knew that they could trust me to be a voice for them.
As I climbed professionally, I was selected to join Phoenix’s hiring team. That was a major step for me to be able to sit on the other side of the table and see what was expected of new employees. I thought to myself, “I must be doing an amazing job.” It gave me so much confidence, and I was shown another side that I never thought I’d ever be a part of. And I continued being the best youth advocate I could be.
One day I got a call from the Phoenix’s administrator and was told that I was being promoted from youth advocate to a youth support specialist. There was an article in our local newspaper that featured me, made notice of the promotion, and described the hard work I had put forth to get the position. I was so happy and grateful, and I felt my hard work paid off and that I was being noticed for it. It gave me a new view of life mentally, financially, and spiritually, and I saw that I had greater responsibility to do even better, and I did.
I stayed on top of my caseload. I checked on the participants often. I did home, high school, and college visits along with court appearances and whatever I needed to do to make sure the participants stayed out of trouble and kept a positive attitude. I always remained positive with the youth, which was instilled in me by Mrs. Toyce and other Phoenix staff.
After five great years, we had a meeting where I was notified that Phoenix YO would no longer receive government funding. It crushed me as well as my community. Southeast Arkansas wasn’t the same, and I thought about what I learned from YO and how others wouldn’t have the same opportunities I had because of limited resources. That’s why in 2010, Mrs. Toyce invited me to go to Washington, DC, to speak on behalf of Phoenix YO to lawmakers and politicians about how the program had shaped my life. I hoped that I could continue to be an advocate for youth in my community, even on a national stage.
I moved from Eudora, Arkansas, to Little Rock in 2007 to attend barber school. I earned my barber certificate from New Tyler Barber College, and now I reside in Little Rock with my wife and five kids. I own the only barber shop I’ve ever worked in, and I have been driving school buses for the past eight years. I own the home I live in and three others. The best part of it all is I serve the Lord faithfully, and I’ve been a deacon of the Mercy Seat Missionary Baptist Church for the past seven years.
The values I gained and retained from my experience in Phoenix’s YO program played a vital role in making me the man I’ve become. The leadership and support Mrs. Toyce and her team gave me developed the core values I still have today. I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to be a part of a program that continues to be so important in Southeast Arkansas.
Our youth are like seeds: they must be planted in the right places and given the proper care to grow and reach their full potential. I’m proof of that.
Phoenix Youth and Family Services plans, implements, and evaluates initiatives that create sustainable, positive changes in people's lives and communities in Southeast Arkansas.
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