South Florida is blessed to have many outstanding high school graduates. Still, some of them stand out from the rest of the crowd. Danielle Neil is that kind of student. Born in Miami 17 years ago to Jamaican parents, she weighed in at only two pounds. The odds seemed to be against her. But she was tough — a born fighter. And so, this “miracle baby” survived. And now, she is going to Yale.
Recently I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Danielle, who lives in Florida City with her parents, Judith and Delroy, and her younger brother, Joshua, 10.
While Danielle was an infant, her parents moved back to Jamaica, where she would spend her early years. Her wise mother soon realized that living in the United States would give Danielle more educational opportunities and brought her back to this country, leaving her husband behind for a while.
Back in this country, Judith Neil settled in Florida City, where someone told her about the Branches Summer Shade Camp Program, and she enrolled Danielle. Later, Danielle would become a part of Branches’ Grow After-school Program. Meanwhile, Judith Neil found spiritual strength at the church that housed the programs and started attending worship services at Florida City United Methodist Church (now named Branches United Methodist Church). Danielle loved attending church and being involved in its activities. Today, she not only sings in the church choir, but also is a worship leader.
Danielle is a recent graduate of Coral Reef High School, where she was in the top five percent of her class with a GPA of 5.03. She is still trying to get used to the fact that she will attend Yale University in the fall.
“I always knew that I wanted to go to college, but the way people encouraged me caused me to research colleges that would challenge me,” she said. “That’s when I sought out Yale.” She will attend Yale on a full scholarship.
Meanwhile, this summer Danielle is working as a guide for Branches’ Summer Shade Camp.
At Yale, Danielle said she is “... thinking about majoring in sociology and East Asian Languages, and later getting law degree,” she said.
“Being in high school in such a diverse area and going to Korea [two summers ago she spent six weeks in Seoul, Korea] kind of led me to become more interested in the language and culture of East Asia,” she said.
“At Yale there is also a program called the Education Studies Program for students who want to learn more about the policies and the foundation of the American Education system. I’m really interested in that program and want to combine all those interests and study law in the future. I want to use the Asian languages to broaden my horizon so I can communicate with more people.”
Last summer, Danielle was accepted into the highly competitive LEDA Leadership Summer Institute. Scholars for the program are carefully selected when they are juniors in high school and spend the following summer on the campus of Princeton University
Judith Neil works at Branches UMC as the Climb Program coordinator for middle and high school students. The program is funded by the Children’s Trust. Dad Delroy, is a laborer and is currently working in the Florida Keys, Danielle said.
Kim Torres, director of student services for Branches sites at Florida City, South Miami and North Miami, said Danielle has been active in Branches since the summer of 2010.
Torres started Branches in Florida City 1994 as a children and youth program.
“A great thing about Danielle is that she wants to share her experiences and make a positive impact on other students in Florida City,” Torres said. “She really cares about her community and is encouraging the children she works with by letting them know that they can also do great things.”
Brent McLaughlin, executive director of Branches, added, “Danielle is an inspiration to be around. She is motivated to help others and make a difference in this world. She will go far, due to her intellectual curiosity.”
Branches supports children and youth from kindergarten through college. The organization says it has a 94 percent retention rate from year to year, and when the student goes off to college Branches continues the support by providing $2,500 per school year for incidentals — laundry, dinner, clothing, entertainment and other resources their parents may not be able to afford.
REMEMBERING SHERDAVIA, OTHERS
On Monday, we will pause once more to honor the memory of all the children who lost their lives to gun violence, and to encourage the community to prevent future tragedies. We can do this by remembering not to fire bullets into the air as a part of the July Fourth celebration.
As in the past, this year’s commemoration will be at Sherdavia Jenkins Peace Park at Northwest 12th Avenue and 62nd Street (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.) in Liberty City.
The program for the annual event will include opening prayers, greetings from officials, live performances and “Village Talk,” which consists of open-mic reflections from community members. The program will conclude with the placement of 108 flowers representing area children lost to gun violence. In the past balloons were released. But because they get blown into local waters, where they are known to do considerable environmental damage, flowers will be used this year, said Dinizulu Gene Tinnie, one of the event’s organizers.
Monday’s remembrance day is one of two yearly events at the Sherdavia Jenkins Peace Park. The other event will be on her birthday, March 22.
Sherdavia was only 9 when she was killed by a stray bullet on July 1, 2009, as she played in front of her home in the Liberty Square housing project. She was a bright child with a promising future and was especially gifted in playing chess. Her death marked the 16th child homicide in 2009 alone. The mini-park, named in her memory, also honors every child lost to gun violence before and since her death.
The free event will be from 2 to 3 p.m. and is open to the entire Miami-Dade community. Families who have lost children to homicides and supporters of a safer community are especially welcome, along with spiritual leaders, elected officials and other community activists who want to make a difference.
A good way to get to know folks is by attending a church/synagogue/mosque in your neighborhood. I have learned that people usually have a better understanding of their neighbor once they have worshiped with them.
In keeping with this sentiment, The Church of God Tabernacle, 1351 NW 67th St. in Liberty City, is having Friends and Family Day at 10 a.m. Sunday, and you are invited.
The service will be sponsored by the church’s Trustee Board. The evening service, which will start at 7 p.m., will include the taking of the Lord’s Supper and a foot-washing service. Bishop Walter H. Richardson is the pastor and overseer of the church.
TEACHINGS OF PAUL
As a young Christian, I didn’t often understand some of the teachings of the apostle Paul in the New Testament of the Bible. I used to say, “When I meet Brother Paul in Heaven, he is going to have a lot of explaining to do,” especially about his approach to women in the early church.
Of course, as I grew in the Lord, I understood more about Brother Paul. But just in case you would like to know more about him, Trinity Cathedral Forum series on Paul the Apostle will be held at 11:20 a.m. Sundays — July 14, 21, 28 and Aug. 4 — in the Community Room.
The series is based on video lectures by three scholars: Professor William R. Cook of the State University of New York at Geneseo; Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and Professor Bart D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The topics are: Paul and the First Christian Missionaries; Paul the Hero of Acts; Paul, the Epistolary Evangelist, and Paul, Our Earliest Christian Author.
The Cathedral is at 464 NE 16th St.
LYRIC THEATER EVENT
The Lyric Theater will present “Lyric Live Amateur Night Showcase” at 8 p.m. Friday at the theater, 819 NW Second Ave. in Overtown. The showcase will be held every first Friday of the month and will be hosted by Chello Davis with Showtyme Junkanoo and live music by the Lyric Live House Band.
Tickets can be purchased at lyriclive.eventbrite.com. Doors open at 7 p.m.; showtime is at 8 p.m.