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Strong Desire

"Strong Desire" Continued...

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

Leavell finished school in Baton Rouge in May, and though being separated from his family and relocating twice in two years was tough, he says, "I always focused on finishing school. That was my main focus." He credits God's grace with his ability to persevere. "There were nights when I cried in bed because I felt like my life was so screwed up," Leavell said. "Without my faith I would have probably given up on everything."

Leavell isn't the only one who didn't give up. Half of his fellow graduates are pursuing vocational training, and the other half are pursuing college, statistics Jones calls "quite the accomplishment since some will be the first in their families to complete high school."

Leavell plans to enroll this fall in Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss., where he will pursue an associate's degree in business administration. Eventually he may pursue pediatrics. Ultimately, Leavell wants to be an example to his community and his family, including an older brother who has been in and out of jail: "I want to be somebody who made it."

The next day, Karen Weber was glad she made it to DSM. Her son, Byron, was graduating, and she had driven from Houston, where she fled after the hurricane ruined her family's 9th Ward rental home.

An hour before graduation, Weber stood under an awning in front of the gym at DSM, watching the driving rain fill Desire Street. It had been raining nearly three hours, and cars were suddenly stranded in flooding on nearby streets. The Louisiana National Guard rescued at least one family trapped in a car under a bridge less than a mile away.

Flash floods aren't uncommon in the low-lying 9th Ward where the drainage is poor, but the waters were uncanny on this day. Weber thought about the day nearly two years ago when she left her neighborhood as it filled with water.

One of her first thoughts was: "What about the school?" Weber desperately wanted Byron, a junior at the time, to remain in the academy, which she calls a life-saver. "He wasn't doing good" before enrolling at DSA, she says.

Byron evacuated to Atlanta with DSA staff members and stuck with the school in Florida and Baton Rouge. "He's graduating with a 3.85 GPA," Weber beams. Byron plans to study accounting at Southeastern Louisiana University in nearby Hammond this fall.

Weber said this day was especially poignant since Byron is the youngest of her seven children. Another son was killed in a violent crime in New Orleans several years earlier. "I'm glad Byron could have something different," she said.

As the event grew closer, cars continued to plow through the street's standing water and onto DSM's parking lot on higher ground. Inside, the rain wasn't dampening the celebratory mood. Graduates hugged, laughed, and posed for photos with friends, family, and staff members.

The event began 15 minutes late to allow more time for navigating the treacherous roads. Despite the conditions, some 300 people filled rows of seats in the gym and cheered wildly as the graduates processed to their seats on stage.

New Orleans city councilman Oliver Thomas delivered the commencement address, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees encouraged the graduates to be godly men. Some of the most moving words came from graduates themselves: Jonathan Rochon read from Proverbs 22: "The rich and the poor meet together and the Lord is the maker of them all. . . . Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it."

Valedictorian Rodney Clark told parents and teachers: "We understand how much you are counting on us to be productive." He told his fellow graduates: "Jesus loves us, and because He lives in us, we must excel."

In the parking lot after graduation, Principal Jones smiled as a small crowd watched the street and waited for the water level to subside. The flood didn't faze him. "We still made it," he said. Jones, who wears a gold lapel pin reading "No Excuses," hopes the graduates will excel and be productive. He dreams of seeing the young men return as teachers, pastors, or city councilmen. Most of all, he prays they will "become strong, Christian men and keep the Lord in their life."

That's what DSM has taught the graduates, according to Leavell: "They've taught us how to be good fathers instead of dope dealers, men of God instead of men of the streets." For those lessons, Leavell can hardly contain his excitement or gratitude: "I just praise God because He's been blessing me so much, and I give Him all the praise and glory."

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