Ya Ya Fofana Jr. was far from home and out of his comfort zone.
The 10-year-old watched as a 134-pound boar meandered up a Cedar Key dirt road toward him. It definitely was not a common sight for the St. Petersburg native.
Jovan McNeill stepped up, tapped Fofana on the shoulder and asked if he was ready.
After whispers of encouragement and instruction from McNeill, Fofana lined up for his first shot. His aim was true, sending his crossbow’s arrow into the boar’s front left leg.
This hunt was Fofana’s first, but he and McNeill have shared other outdoor adventures.
In 2015, McNeill started Cloud Nine Outdoors, a non-profit that aims to expose children from under-resourced communities like Fofana to outdoor activities with additional educational mentorship. McNeill’s fond memories of growing up fishing along the Gandy and Morris bridges fueled his love of the outdoors for years.
The peace he found from the shoreline was a comfort when dealing with his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And it helped spark the idea for his current passion project.
Cloud Nine Outdoors is a year-round program that takes on up to 30 children, ranging in age from 8-18. This year, McNeill has 17 kids in his program and he has never turned a child away.
“I’ve been that kid who ... might watch a fishing show on TV or a hunting show on TV,” said McNeill, 34, of Clearwater. “And it’s so bad, your mom and dad have no means (to offer those experiences). In the moment of doing these activities (with the kids), I know there’s meaning and a purpose, but I’m so stuck in the moment of that experience that I don’t think (about) that I’m providing something I wasn’t provided.”
In 2020, Cloud Nine Outdoors was awarded a $4,920 grant by the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida for monthly archery and hunting programs, aimed at women and minority youths. This year, the organization received another $3,050 grant.
“Our motto is where mentorship and education meets the outdoors, because we can teach someone to fish, but that’s not going to change a lifestyle, that’s not going to help you advance in life, career-wise, academic-wise,” McNeill said. “So we want to be that person and organization where whatever you need outside of that, if you’re with us, you can succeed.”
Connection based in education
McNeill works with a few Tampa Bay K-12 schools, such as Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg, where teachers, guidance counselors or principals will reach out to him with a child that they think can benefit from his program.
It’s how he connected with George Wells and Maleke Fowler, two behavior specialists at Melrose.
“With Jovan, it’s been really great because it’s expanded what (the kids) know of the world,” Wells said. “We’ve taken kids out fishing on boats and out in the Gulf. Some of these students live and grow up in St. Pete and have never been to the beach.”
Wells said most of the students at Melrose come from single-mom families, so it’s a big deal to have another male role model, like McNeill, around who can help them succeed and take an interest in their studies.
Wells recalled having a fifth-grader who was a “frequent flyer” in the office. One day as the student was getting disciplined, he saw hunting and fishing pictures on Wells’ desk, piquing his curiosity. Wells reached out to McNeill, and a deal was struck with the student so he could go hunting.
“It was the impossible,” Wells said. “This person went from a weekly suspension rate, bi-weekly suspension rate, and our deal was 60 days nose clean, no trouble at all.”
The student agreed, with his mother’s permission, and the next week showed “incredible” behavior. Periodically, Wells and McNeill reminded the student of what he was working toward.
During the 60-day period, the school saw major progressions in both the student’s behavior and academics.
“We found that we were not using the proper motivational tools to help him decide to make a change,” Wells said. “He went 90 days without a disciplinary problem. ... He had five awards at the end of the year ... and you’re talking about someone who had never received an award from first through fourth grade. ...
“It was just an incredible scene.”
After coming through on his side of the bargain, the student went on his special hunting trip. And to this day, the family keeps in touch with Wells.
“We got a Christmas card a few days ago,” Wells said. “I mean, if that’s not meaningful change — Cloud Nine and Jovan, I don’t think he understands the impact that he’s having on some of the students, some of the kids that he’s working with.”
From field to fork
Fofana had never been boar and hog hunting before his field trip in late November, though he has participated in Cloud Nine Outdoors for the past three years.
Fofana, mom Lorreka Burton and McNeill traveled two-and-a-half hours from St. Petersburg to Tiger Island Outfitters in Cedar Key for Fofana’s big day.
After getting sprayed down with scent eliminator and insect repellent, Fofana and McNeill took a couple of practice shots on a foam bear target 30 feet away with the crossbow. Then it was time for the real deal.
Within five minutes of entering the 26-acre wooded area, Fofana encountered his first boar.
After a few hours the hunt concluded, and Fofana got to see how the meat was harvested. It would get sent off for processing, turning body parts and ligaments into meals for him and his family — a true field to fork process that McNeill takes pride in.
“Those are the memories that you take in,” said McNeill, “because these kids will never forget this.”
Burton had prayed for a male role model to look out for her, Ya Ya Jr. and his two brothers. Then about three years ago while scrolling on Facebook, she saw a fishing ad for McNeill’s program. She felt like God had given her an answer.
When Burton and Fofana arrived for that initial fishing event, Fofana immediately gravitated toward McNeill.
“I liked the way (McNeill) was trying to pull information out of (my son), trying to make him feel comfortable,” Burton said. “I liked how he was very open and honest about everything.”
In the years since, Burton has seen Fofana take an interest in fishing and other outdoor activities she wished she could have participated in at his age.
“I would have loved something like this,” said Burton, 34.
Burton has watched her son and McNeill grow closer. He has a confidence around McNeill that is refreshing.
Fofana, who is home-schooled, has flexibility in his schedule to participate in many of McNeill’s events. McNeill is active in making sure Fofana stays on track with his school assignments.
“(McNeill) tells me how to do it,” Fofana said of his outdoor activities. “He tells me what I’m doing wrong and what I’m doing right. He helps me correct my mistakes.”
McNeill’s focus for Cloud Nine Outdoors has evolved over the years. Initially, he envisioned buying some property with a pond or two and a trailer for holding outdoor classes.
But he realizes there are needs for other things: exposure to other outdoor activities aside from fishing (swimming, camping and boating/kayaking also are offered); stressing education and making sure kids are prepared to advance in life.
And he wants to remain as mobile as possible with a greater reach.
“It’s more of a lifestyle now than, let’s just go fishing for the day,” McNeill said.
Have an outdoor adventure we should try? Curious about the ins and outs of fishing seasons in Florida? Know a cool business or owner to profile? Contact Mari Faiello at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @faiello_mari.