Kansas City, October 17, 2016: Mary Williams-Neal sees a constellation of stars when she greets students at Central Academy of Excellence.
Ms. Williams-Neal – a community volunteer at the school – knows well the impact of empowering students who face formidable forces. On a recent Friday, she described being raised on a Mississippi sharecropper’s farm in the 1960s and getting punished severely for sneaking out of her home to attend school instead of cutting cotton during harvest.
“It was my third grade teacher who taught me the value of coming to school,” Williams-Neal said. “She told me I was a star. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I knew it was good and I knew I wanted to find out what it meant, so I kept coming to school, no matter what came at me.”
Principal Anthony Madry and his team are building a new way of doing business at Central Academy. That includes repositioning the school as the center of its community and embracing neighbors like Williams-Neal who step up to contribute their time, talents and passion for serving students.
Williams-Neal is leading a few other like-minded volunteers who are seeking to grow a corps of responsible adults who can help Central Academy by providing students and their families with social and emotional support. Among other things, this can include friendly greetings for students throughout the day, counseling students who make poor decisions, and home visits with families to figure out how to help students improve attendance.
Williams-Neal is, according to Madry, a unique and powerful resource.
“She brings a history with our community and a passion for our students that we need,” Madry said. “We can’t reach our goals without people like her helping us get there.”
Volunteering at Central Academy is a natural step for a remarkable individual whose winding road has taken Williams-Neal from the cotton fields of the deep south to the corridors of political power in Kansas City.
It’s not that Ms. Williams-Neal has climbed a crystal stair. After moving north in 1969 to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City, her undergraduate program was interrupted after she started working two jobs so that she could care for her cancer-stricken mother, her 13 siblings and her own child.
Those hard years were a kind of post-secondary education. They taught Williams-Neal the value of resiliency.
“I want our students to know that they can make it, even when things are tough or they make a mistake,” she said. “If I can make it from where I came from, they can get there, too. It’s never too late.”
It was a passion for public service planted by teachers that prompted Williams-Neal to volunteer for community organizations like the Kansas City Neighborhood Alliance even while juggling her other obligations. Her volunteer work led to a staff position with the alliance, a scholarship from the Kauffman Foundation to attend a two-week seminar on teaching at Harvard University, and corporate management positions with Gates Bar B.Q., McDonalds and Ponderosa.
As she built a career training food service managers, Williams-Neal continued her advocacy efforts by volunteering at what was then Central High School and joining the Hall Foundation’s initiative to create strong links between the Longfellow and Beacon Hill neighborhoods. That work led directly to her successful run for a seat on the Kansas City City Council in 1994.
Williams-Neal’s love for Central Academy and its neighborhood was evident as she talked about Mr. Madry’s phone call in August, when he asked her to help bridge the gap between the school and its families. Her words came deliberately as she caught her breath and collected her thoughts.
“This school is a safe place and we have the foundation with our leaders, staff, teachers and counselors to provide the support our students need,” she said. “We are all working every day to develop our students and our parents. Every person in this school is part of the solution.”
The key to helping students, she believes, is understanding that everyone has to be willing to learn from and cooperate with each other, no matter what their positions. She smiled while describing the process of getting the school, businesses, churches, community organizations and parents all engaged to help students reach for the stars.
“If we work together and respect each other, that’s how our students will learn to behave,” Williams-Neal said. “When we do that, then we’ll start to find the right path together through the obstacles we face. This is our community, and the only way we will succeed is by acting as a community.”
Learn more about how to serve students at Central Academy of Excellence and across KCPS by visiting www.kcpublicschools.org/Volunteer.