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Voices, vibes, values

A couple who know how it feels to go from pinnacle to the bottom and back again give kids a reason to sing out.

By JEAN CAREY
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 5, 2002


TAMPA -- Israel and Gloria Peniel met in the spring of 1993 at the Tampa Housing Authority offices on Main Street.

Gloria coached aerobics there.

Israel, former running back for the San Diego Chargers, coached basketball, partly to clean up his criminal record, which meant doing community service. He was on probation, Gloria learned, for a charge of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

"I didn't quite know what all that meant, nor did I care," his wife says. "All I saw was a healthy, good-looking, mature man who was not looking at me."

He wasn't ignoring her, she discovered. He was trying to overhaul his life.

So began an unconventional love story.

Nearly a decade later, the Peniels are still coaching kids.

Israel Peniel -- who owns up to a history of drug abuse and bad choices -- tells teens about the virtue of restraint.

The Peniels live in Tampa Palms, but their fingers are all over central Tampa. They operate a program called Wise Up to Your Self, in which they teach music and character education to young people, most from low-income neighborhoods.

"Every time he talks, it's been about something that's going on in my life," Wise choir member Ashley Burgess told a reporter in April, speaking of Israel Peniel's knack for connecting with kids.

The Wise Up to Your Self Gospel Choir is again accepting students -- this time, ages 10 to 18 -- for a music and character development program that begins July 24 at the University of Tampa. It is aimed at West Tampa children.

Children from the Hillsborough County Haven Poe Run Away Center are expected to participate, along with teens from the original group, based at Ferrell Adult and Community School on Chelsea Street in East Tampa.

About half of the teens in first choir came from the 33610 ZIP code, which includes College Hill, Belmont Heights and Jackson Heights.

Students meet weekly for choir practice and a lesson in character education from Peniel or invited guests.

Character is what Gloria says she saw when she first met her future husband, who told her of his troubled past.

Peniel, in his younger years, played two seasons in the NFL. He enjoyed a taste of success, becoming a teacher, a minister, husband and father. Then came more than a decade of substance abuse and grief. He lost everything, and ended up homeless on the streets of downtown Tampa.

But he had just been accepted into the Master Special Education Program at USF and had been granted approval to start a church ministry on the campus. Ultimately, he would earn a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University.

"I saw a character in him that was much bigger than all that stuff," Gloria says of the criminal record. "I said, 'To heck with it. This man's in school.' "

Humbled but drawing on inner reserves, Israel dedicated himself to helping troubled young people.

In weekly sessions with teens, he covers the complexities of violence, drugs and sex.

" 'Marriage is a beautiful thing' is what I tell my students," he says. " 'Take your time, get your schooling. You will meet somebody.' "

He and Gloria have seven children between them, ranging from 12 to 28, all from prior relationships.

Son Trenton, after training to be a teacher, recently joined the Army. Bernadette, trained as a nutritionist, works in Dade City. Victoria attends Hillsborough High. Raquan, of Washington, D.C., is a U.S. Navy civilian engineer. Majidah is pursuing an engineering degree at Florida International University. Phillip, a former Army paratrooper, is studying to be an electrician. And 12-year-old Keevis lives in Virginia with his mother.

The Peniels share a fondness for exercise and a love for music -- classical for Gloria, gospel and jazz for Israel.

"We listen to the teen rap songs just to take in the current," she says.

For fun, the two go to local and state high school football games and track meets.

"The first time he asked me out was to a high school football game to see his son, Trenton, play for Hillsborough High School," she says.

She's writing two books, one the story about a former NFL player who nearly ruined his life before changing the way he lived it.

She doesn't need to go far for research.

Peniel isn't afraid to talk about his past.

"That's the power that drives the services we deliver," he says.

"People are looking for integrity and honesty. They trust you when you come forth and are honest with them."

-- For more information about Wise Up to Your Self, call 975-8707 or visit www.is-pen.org.

About the Peniels

  • HOME: Tampa Palms.
  • CALLINGS: Youth counselors.
  • AGES: Gloria, 51; Israel, 52.
  • HER DAY JOB: Tampa Hillsborough Public Library System.
  • HIS PREVIOUS NAME: Harold Bernard Johnson, until he changed it to reflect his new life.
  • HIS FORMER VICES: Marijuana, cocaine, mescaline, LSD and alcohol, he says. HER TAKE ON THAT: "He's come a long way."
  • HOW HE SURVIVED WHEN HOMELESS: Playing organ for pocket change at church, eating hot dogs and showering at the University of Tampa.
  • HIM ON HER: "Gloria has a big heart. She's kind, unselfish, lovable."
  • HER ON HIM: "He's focused, intent, straightforward, driven."
  • CHILDREN: She has three; he has four.
  • FUTURE PLANS: A Great Dane.
  • FUNDING SOURCES: Allegany Franciscan Foundation, Hillsborough County Children's Board, Tampa Housing Authority.

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