A child running away, being caught, put into foster care, and then returned to her home by the court is not an unusual story. Nor is it uncommon for a child to repeat this cycle many times over. However, all too often, society brands such a child as juvenile delinquent or an incorrigible runaway. Such could have been the fate of young Phyllis P. McNeal had she been less of a fighter than she proved herself to be.
McNeal's home life was violent—in today's terminology, dysfunctional. Having elder siblings did nothing to protect her: they had issues (dragons) of their own. So she ran, repeatedly, trying to escape the abusive environment only to be caught and returned. Gratefully, her cyclic pattern caught the attention of a therapist who earned her trust. Her therapist, Saundra C. Lang, LCSW, taught her about making choices based on their potential outcomes and empowered her with a sense of self-worth that encouraged her to make some bold, far-beyond-her-years decisions. Ms. Lang became her first "guardian angel."
Under the guidance and tutelage of Mrs. McGinnis, Phyllis graduated high school with honors and subsequently attended California State University of Long Beach where, in 1982, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, specializing in Child Development. Later, she went on to earn a Master of Social Work degree from the California State University of San Bernardino—again graduating with honors in 2003.
Between her laudable academic achievements, Phyllis began fulfilling her life calling. "I had goals to reach," she says, passion ringing in her voice, "To work in the social services field, to help people fulfill their dreams."
She began working in social services as an intern in California Youth Authority (CYA), eventually becoming a state employee at the CYA reception center as a classification and group supervisor. Soon she was promoted to youth counselor and sponsored Young Adults Against Crime, taking young offenders into the community to give talks about their experiences and the negative impacts of their prior behavior.
Then she transferred to the Inglewood Parole Complex as a parole agent. Wanting to continue her community service, she launched the Straight Talk Program; engaging parolees, and inmates to speak candidly in community venues about their life experiences and how criminal behavior had led to incarceration. Some 29 years later, I am still at it.