Like a lot of youth counselors, Jamaree Argo will greet the kids at the Wilbert Davis/Belmont Heights Boys & Girls Club with a big smile and words of encouragement.
He'll tell them they can succeed. He'll tell them they can be anything they want to be. He'll speak from the heart, remembering when such encouragement lifted him out of an unpromising future to a path filled with hope.
"It's been a challenge because a lot of kids in that neighborhood aren't used to hearing 'good job,' " Argo explained. "I think it really touches them because you see kids come back every day and really excel in the program."
Argo's own story is living proof of the power of inspiring words. The Plant City High graduate works as a paid intern for the Boys & Girls Club after becoming one of five students from Hillsborough County chosen as a Bank of America student leader. The program also will allow him to travel to Washington, D.C.
I served on the panel of community leaders that sorted through applications to pick the winners from among 10 finalists. On Monday, I got to match a face with the name and story that proved it's never too late for a teen to turn his life around.
Argo, 18, grew up in Plant City with an older sister, a younger brother and a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. As a boy, he often got in trouble at school, frustrated by the plight his mother endured at home.
"She cried every day," Argo said. "So I was upset. Anything anybody said to me offended me and I retaliated.
"I couldn't do nothing about it. At that age, you can't go out and get a job. All I could do was stand by and watch her struggle."
Ashley Booth, his ninth-grade reading teacher at Plant City, saw potential even though he often refused to follow the rules.
He excelled at math and proved to be a natural leader, but where he led others often proved problematic.
"He wasn't going in the right direction," Booth said. "He was feisty. He fought back with me all the time. I worried a lot about him.
"I used to ask him, 'What are you going to do with yourself? He would say, 'I'm going to be somebody,' and I would say, 'Not with that attitude.' "
The turnaround began when Argo's older sister ran into trouble and his mother removed her from school and sent her to Job Corps of Florida. He decided he wanted to take a different route.
"I knew I needed to change my life and be a better role model for my younger brother," Argo said.
Teachers entered him in the AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, program that enrolled him in Advanced Placement classes and began preparing him for college. Booth said Argo began using his leadership skills for good, mentoring and tutoring other students.
At home, two uncles, Maureo Thomas and Tony Price, helped fill the void left by the father Argo never knew. Thomas, a city of Lakeland supervisor, and Price, an IT specialist at MacDill Air Force Base, took him on trips and shared their success stories.
"They had the kind of life I wanted," Argo said.
He graduated in June, and Booth said she cried when he walked across the stage. She taught Isiah, Jamaree's younger brother, this year and described him as "the spitting image of everything Jamaree has become."
Argo drew the attention of colleges after scoring a 29 on the ACT. In August, he begins classes at Florida Gulf Coast University with hopes of majoring in engineering or secondary education.
So often, child advocates rightfully talk about the importance of early intervention and focusing on the years 0-8. Some will tell you that if a student is on the wrong path by the time he reaches high school, you can't turn him around.
Argo shows us it's never too late to get back on track. And that's a lesson he's sharing this summer with the kids at the Boys & Girls Club.
That's all I'm saying.