The annual Los Angeles County Community Volunteer of the Year Awards Banquet recognizes the selfless acts of individuals and organizations who strive to make a positive impact within L.A. County. In keeping with its star-studded tradition, legendary Los Angeles Lakers and Woman’s National Basketball Association’s, L.A. Sparks head coach, Michael Cooper, was on hand to present the awards to the nominees. This year, Team March member Master Sgt. Darryl Willingham, first sergeant, 452d Aeromedical Staging Squadron, was recognized for his commitment to bettering the lives of at-risk youths using tough love, a physically demanding boot camp and Air Force core values.
A couple of years ago, Willingham, also known as “Sergeant You’re-Just-Not-Ready” and Staff Sgt. Zakia Webster, services technician, 163d Force Support Squadron, a.k.a., “Sergeant Get-Some,” volunteered to change the lives of a local youth who suffer through difficult times and are grossly misunderstood. The March sergeants, decided to integrate their diverse military backgrounds into the program, adding a new dynamic to already strained measures.
The Youth Camp program was designed to deal with seven year- to 17-year old children who disrespect their parents, skip school and involve themselves in gangs. They smoke, use drugs, drink alcohol socially or just to get through the day. In many cases, they lack motivation and resort to the basics of existing everyday with little to no guidance or direction. In addition, Camp administrators encounter parents who destroy their children’s outlook on life because of their own past. Unfortunately, the results of this type of lifestyle produce an out-of-control teenager, desperately in need of help.
Willingham and Webster have been met with many challenges and heart-breaking situations since signing on as volunteers. Here are a few parent-child situations that could easily resemble the neighbors next door:
- A 14-year old male was brought to the youth camp for beating his mom on her legs with a stick — he did not approve of his mother’s social activities.
- A 13-year old female was caught drinking and having sexual relations with a 20-year old male. She would sneak him in her father’s house, while the father was in the next room.
- A 15-year old male, addicted to crystal methamphetamine, constantly disobeyed his mother, claiming she was incapable of being a parent and could not make him do anything against his will – he claimed he had rights. He also commented the devil was sitting next to him.
- A 13-year old female hit her grandmother in the face with a bathroom plunger and ran away.
The rules of engagement are designed to help children work out their anger issues through talking or writing. They write, “Can You Find It In Your Heart To Forgive Me” letters to their parents, participate in peer-to-peer mentoring and correct bad behavior with safe exercises. The children learn they are not alone and they are no different than anyone else.
During boot camp, the evenings began with a four- to six-mile hike to the mountaintop. After which, they gather for dinner on the hilltop and confess what they did wrong during the week – this was affectionately called. “The First Sergeant’s Hill of Confession.” After dinner, on the way down the hill, the children let every life form, from animals to the smallest insect, know what they did wrong and how they were going to change it. After three-days in the mountains with Sgt. Get Some, the children usually gain a greater appreciation for their parents.
Webster is methodical. She watches every move the cadets make and studies their behavioral patterns. One day during a routine paraphernalia check, she caught a 16-year old boy with a hollowed out apple in his backpack with marijuana residue, along with a couple of joints rolled up in his beanie cap. She sent him to Sgt. You’re-Just-Not-Ready, who implemented a series of approved, child-safe, persuasive techniques resulting in an eye opening experience. Today, that young man is in college studying to be a probation officer.
Recapping the scenarios after boot camp:
The 14-year old male who beat his mom in the legs did a complete turn-around after a weekend in the mountains with the drill instructors. He promised his mom he would do better and she took him out of the program. The teen is doing much better and improving his grades; however, if he needs a tune up, the March sergeants will be on stand-by for refresher training.
The 13-year old female who was caught with alcohol and the 20-year old boyfriend changed her life and was featured in a Youth Boot Camp success commercial. Shortly after leaving the program, she fell in to peer pressure and became pregnant. On the plus side, she visits the boot camp and helps out by telling the new cadets her story: How she met Sgts. You’re-Just-Not-Ready and Get Some on top of the mountain and how her life was changed forever.
The 15-year old male on crystal meth who said the devil was sitting next to him, received some extra-special conditioning – the drill sergeants decided to exercise him and the devil with him. At the end of the day, the young male realized he was keeping the wrong (spiritual) company and decided to change. Unfortunately, the teen’s father is currently suffering from a meth addiction and unable to provide proper support and good family values, so the young male ended up in the hospital, after an overdose, fighting for his life. Willingham visited the teen in the hospital and was greeted with a single request — he asked permission for a hug — Willingham happily obliged. After treatment, the teen reentered school and is reportedly doing much better.
The 13-year old female who hit her grandmother in the face with a bathroom plunger was the feature story Willingham spoke of when he accepted his award. He recalled during one of his boot camp sessions, asking the young female why she was there — her reply was: “I hit my grandmother in the face with a plunger.” Moving on as though he was unaffected by her reply, Willingham continued with the rest of the teens, putting them through an exhausting regiment of exercises. After which, they all sat next to the campfire for the hillside confession period. Willingham asked the teens if they really belonged at the camp – everyone said no, but this one female said yes because she hit her grandmother with a plunger. The question on everyone’s mind was how could anyone hit their own grandmother. She explained with tearful eyes, how her grandmother was very physically and mentally abusive and her reaction was in self-defense. The crowd felt ashamed because they realized she had been misjudged.
Willingham left the stage with thunderous applause, giving the audience something to think about. He departed with hopes that something he said would inspire the crowd to help in their own community.
Also in attendance was Staff Sgt. Shatayne Acevedo, 452d Force Support Squadron and Wing Rising Six. Unofficially, Acevedo was asked to join the team as “Sgt. Ace,” but at the conclusion of the ceremony, a definite answer had not yet been given.
The Team March sergeants, encourage all Citizen Airman to volunteer whenever and wherever possible.
These were true accounts; names were not used in order to protect the privacy of the families.
(Article content is credited solely to Master Sgt. Darryl Willingham, 452 ASTS)