MANATEE — Before attending the Palmetto Youth Academy, attaining a GED may well have been an impossible dream for the high-risk youth who find themselves in this school behind fences laced with razor wire.
“Some of these youth admit that they stopped going to school a long time ago. One of our youth stopped going after third grade,” said Jacquelin Jones, the lead educator for the facility. “Here, we give them hope.”
A group of young men dressed in attire resembling the clothes worn just a short ride down the street at the Manatee County jail filed into a large room Thursday. They gathered for an assembly to acknowledge educational, character and attitude accomplishments, and three youth who earned their GED’s.
“Make every decision not for today but for eternity,” said Pastor Sirrnest Webster, a guest speaker for the event. “If you make good decisions, you will have good consequences.”
After a short period of requisite whispering and muffled horseplay, the youth settled down and paid rapt attention to their guest.
“What is my purpose? Why am I here? These are the questions you should be asking yourself,” said Webster.
A 16-year-old who Jones dubbed “smiley” for the grin that lights his features has discovered a love of writing poetry since coming to the school. His father is in jail and he is already a father to a 1-year-old.
“The only positive person in my life is my mother,” said the youth. “I want to be that person for my daughter. I’ve been through some hard times, but here, they see something in me here. They are proud of me. They believe in me.”
“We’re here because we love you. Don’t wait till tomorrow, start today,” said Webster.
Another guest, Pastor Roland Oliver, continued the theme of the day when he sang “The Impossible Dream.”
“And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star”
As Oliver hit the last note, the young men showed their appreciation with deafening applause.
“The bottom line here is that it’s not difficult for me to come up with the name of a student that has made a positive impact on the youth or the staff,” said Jones. “That’s my big dream.”