LAKE BUENA VISTA
The courage within Armwood High senior Neijia Riley began to bubble as she listened to Rushion McDonald speak during the recent Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine.
McDonald serves as comedian Steve Harvey's manager and works as executive producer for Harvey's talk show and syndicated radio show. He's also the executive producer for Think Like A Man Too, a sequel to the 2012 movie based on Harvey's bestselling book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.
On this day, however, McDonald took time to address 100 high school students, chosen from 10,000 applicants, to attend the academy at the Walt Disney World Resort. He summed up various roles with a succinct sentence: "I hire people for a living."
Neijia didn't need to hear anything else. She longs to work as an event planner and frets about getting a job after she graduates from college.
So as McDonald bounced from table to table to address the kids, Neijia didn't wait for him to reach her table. She boldly stepped up to McDonald and initiated a conversation. She shared her goals, and when it came time to exchange business cards — each "dreamer" received a box of business cards — she wrote event planner on her card.
"I told him, 'I want you to know that I'm that event planner you met,' " Neijia said.
When McDonald stood before the group again at the final event of the three-day academy, he announced he had chosen students to work as interns at Harvey's 2014 Neighborhood Awards Events in Atlanta this August. Neijia became visibly emotional as she stood on stage to receive the recognition.
Anyone who knows Neijia is not surprised by the story. Her incandescent personality gives her the confidence to approach others and not be awed.
"She's been like that since she was born," said Neijia's mother, Chaquita Slater. "She was born for greatness. She doesn't give my husband and I any problems."
The moment crystallized the academy's mission. Now in its seventh year, it strives to inspire and fuel the dreams of select teens by engaging them with hands-on workshops and career planning exercises. It also offers personal interaction with motivational speakers and celebrities such as E! News host and anchor Terrence J, gospel singer Yolanda Adams, basketball great Magic Johnson and, of course, Harvey.
In short, it's life-changing.
Many of the celebrities read essays to help with the vetting process that netted three Tampa Bay students: Neijia, Carrollwood Day School senior Jessica Wilson and Gibbs High freshman Tra'Vaughn Harrington.
Tra'Vaughn credited the academy for giving him more confidence.
"I thought we were going into a room with Steve Harvey, eat some food, ride some rides and leave," Tra'Vaughn said. "It was much deeper than that, a lot deeper than that."
Asked about his most memorable moment, he shared how he spoke directly to ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith during a "man cave" session. Students were asked about someone they wanted to forgive. With Smith's help, he focused on his father, who hasn't been a major presence in his life.
"My mom passed …," Tra'Vaughn said. "My dad wasn't there. I moved to my grandmother and he lived down the street from me, but he barely ever saw me.
"Stephen A. Smith broke it down for me and said, I still blame him for my mother's death because he wasn't there, because she died from a lot of stress. She died from a heart attack. He said I could be blaming him for that, blaming him for not being there and not being the real father that I need.
"Now I feel stronger. I'm destined for greatness."
Jessica used words like amazing and inspiring to characterize her experience. She soaked up every experience and every speech like a sponge, writing down impressionable statements and sharing them with her mother, her 16-year-old sister and all her friends on Twitter.
"Life-changing? That doesn't explain it enough," Jessica said. "It's been more than life-changing. It's been extraordinary."
Harvey, with his trademark comedic/sermon approach, closed out the academy at its Sunday morning commencement event with strong words of encouragement for all the students.
"Y'all got this new term, y'all say, 'Turnt up,' " Harvey quipped. "Well, what you waiting on? Turnt up. You got to turnt up man. If you think they're going to mail these checks to your house, if you think they're going to walk through the water to your door, if you think somebody is going to hand you a life on a silver platter, you are sadly mistaken.
"You've got to turnt up. You've got to get with it. You've got to catch fire. You've got to want something."
In short, you have to fuel your dreams.
That's all I'm saying.