AMIkids Donaldsonville missed, students never forgotten

DERON TALLEY, EDITOR

Derek McNeal just finished his third semester at LSU last week. He is a  General Equivalency Diploma (GED) recipient. He scored a 26 on his American College Test (ACT). Before doing all of that, he was considered a “troubled-youth.”

After being expelled from Ascension Parish Public Schools twice, McNeal found himself in a program called AMIkids Donaldsonville. He didn’t like being told what to do, so he caused problems in schools. However, he was a straight “A” student.

Because he never had a legal record it was hard for him to get into the AMIkids program. Fortunately for him, his mom knew somebody who could help get him in – she attended the same church as a judge’s wife. Talking to the judge’s wife and the judge, McNeal was allowed to attend the AMIkids program after being out of school for about two months.

“I was thinking this program would be a breeze for me and I’m just about to fly through,” McNeal said, who is a Marketing major at LSU. “I knew in my heart I didn’t belong there. I got around all these kids who needed to be there and had a lot of serious problems in their lives and it directly showed in their attitudes and the choices they made.”

McNeal said being around them brought out the worst in him. He said he was involved in a lot of negative things in his life during that time. Regardless of what he was doing, McNeal said he never gave up on his dream, to go to college.

“As a 16, 17-year-old young, intelligent black male, my life started to break down. I started to succumb to my environment.”

The AMIkids program saved him. He didn’t go there expecting to get help to be a better person, he went anticipating a way to get back into regular school so he can graduate with all his friends he grew up with. At that time he thought getting a GED meant, “Get Education Done,” he said. He was told he couldn’t graduate with his friends at his high school. He said it was devastating and he contemplated suicide.

“I went into this program thinking I wasn’t even a troubled youth,” McNeal said. “I didn’t think it was designed for somebody like me. But this program brought out the worst in me and helped me to overcome it.”

Even after McNeal found out he couldn’t go back to high school, he said it was the AMIkids program that wouldn’t let him give up. McNeal said he wonders where he would be if he didn’t have people like those at AMI who cared for him when he didn’t care for himself. Fortunately for him he said he had AMI.

He said they designed a plan for him to still go to college and told him he could still have the future he wanted. He took the GED test and the ACT test. For the fall 2011 semester, he was accepted into LSU as the first black male to be accepted with a GED without having to go through a two-year junior college to get there, according to McNeal.

“What if I didn’t end up in the AMI program who gave me that push?” McNeal said. “What if those people didn’t care enough to be there to try and help and teach me to be better?”

McNeal said his whole life changed because of that program of people. He said whoever it was that created programs like AMI intended for it to work the way it did for him.

The only thing that bothers McNeal now is the program that helped him is now shut down due to the lack of funding, which McNeal doesn’t accept as a logical possibility.

“There’s no such thing as a lack of funding,” McNeal said. “That’s a term that doesn’t really exist.”

Since the AMIkids Donaldsonville shut down a few weeks ago, the faculty and most recent students have been looking for places to fit in. For the faculty, it’s getting comfortable at a new job and for the students, back into the schools they were once dismissed from.

Andrea Johnson served as the Community Coordinator and she still is allowed to keep in touch with the students despite now working at the Baton Rouge AMI location.

“I won’t forget about them,” Johnson said, “and they know that.”

According to Johnson, all of the students have been enrolled back into schools. Johnson said she is still being funded via grant to have an after-care program where she communicates on the phone or at the homes to assist the students, whether it be for school problems, or job-searching.