Dressed in green T-shirts and khaki pants, they prepared to say farewell to their friend.
On the back of each T-shirt was an inspirational word: integrity, honesty, enthusiasm, dedication. Each could have been a word of wisdom for Alonzo, the latest graduate of Youth Environmental Services, a juvenile justice program under the auspices of the Associated Military Institute.
Even after the speeches and the goodbyes and the advice, the young men of YES knew there was only one way to send their friend back into the community: a "pump up" session. They gathered around a bass drum, and while two members began a thunderous beat, the others started the salute with a cadence of chants. It was the kind of chorus you might hear from a marching military troop, and with their clean-shaven heads, they reflected the discipline of soldiers.
The singing and hand-clapping and foot-stomping celebration punctuated Alonzo's court-ordered completion of the program, and it instilled hope for those who attended the ceremony Monday in Ruskin. You couldn't help but believe our community will be a little better now that Alonzo appears to be on the right track.
The ceremony was held in front of an empty building once occupied by the state Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), the predecessor to the Department of Children and Families. That explained why Dr. Dan Shires and Dr. Alejandro deQuesada were there for the festivities, beaming and looking amazed.
The doctors, who founded LifeLink, owned the building. When HRS moved, they were left to search for new occupants.
The perfect match was made when the doctors learned about the programs that help at-risk kids. They donated the building to AMI and the dedication was made on Monday.
"We couldn't think of a better use for our building than a school that helps those that others may have forgotten," said Shires.
YES, which is part of AMI, is a performance-based program aimed at instilling confidence, values, goals and education. Sirrnest Webster, executive director of YES, says he tries to be the kind of father to these kids that his father wasn't.
"You have to be a role model on the record and off the record," Webster said. "To put it in their words, they know when your game is not correct."
Some, like Lamar Maynard, enter wondering if the staff and counselors are trying to hold them back.
Eventually, they realize the counselors are there to help. Maynard is now enrolled at Hillsborough Community College and hopes to someday get a degree in journalism. But first, he will go to cosmetology school so he can pick up some skills to help work his way through college. The YES program continues to help him find a way.
"Any time you give them a call, they're willing to listen," Maynard said. "They're always available to help, they're always on time."
Alonzo, whose last name is not being used because of his age, told the audience the personal credibility he has gained through YES is worth a thousand words. But if he becomes a productive citizen, there isn't a quantifiable value you can place on his turnaround.
I hope that's something the budget folks in Tallahassee think about. When they put pencil to paper, our state leaders are crunching more than just numbers.
Mark your calendar:The Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau is designating May 13 as Tourist Day. Not only do we recognize tourists, who spend $2.4-billion annually in the city, but we get to dress like them.
It's all part of National Tourism Week, but it's not like I needed an excuse to wear my favorite pineapple shirt.
That's all I'm saying.
- Ernest Hooper can be reached at 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com