When they were standing up there on the stage at the Gene Autry Center in their neat khakis and polo shirts, our young clients from the Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles looked like what they were that day—champion debaters.
But the truth is that every one of them is so much more.
One client started using crystal meth and stealing cars when he was fourteen; another was smoking weed and hadn’t gone to school for a year. Another was living with his alcoholic father who beat him so badly the neighbors finally called the police. By that point, he had been drinking and taking ecstasy for a year. His grades were “pure F’s,” as he put it. For him, the future didn’t exist–until he found the Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles.
If you’d told any one of these teens when they first walked in the Academy doors that within a few short months, they would be addressing a full-capacity crowd at a major Los Angeles cultural institution, arguing the pros and cons of cloning and its social and medical implications, they probably would have laughed–or cried. If you’d told them they would win the championship, they wouldn’t have believed you.
But on Friday, June 24, 2011, that is exactly what they did. Not that it happened overnight; every one of them first had to decide to join the debate team—in other words, redefine profoundly who they were. No longer were they the kids who skipped school and got “pure F’s.”
They were now the ones doing the extra work, reading, studying, learning both sides of a complicated argument. And it wasn’t only academic skills that came into play here; they had to prove themselves creative as well. When it came to their powerpoint presentation, they wrote a rap song—“To get information/To the whole nation!”—and ended up carrying the day.
They were stars up there, and the Phoenix House Academy was both proud and thrilled for them. In the words of Board member Geoffrey Nathanson, “These kids have a shot!”