When Reginald “Reggie” Aguillard walked into Kedila Family Learning Center in Central City, Dipo Mosadomi didn’t recognize him at first.
“He thought I had come to get into the program. That was the look he gave me,” Aguillard says, smiling at Mosadomi.
In fact, Aguillard, 28, had been in YouthBuild in 2001 and 2002, when Mosadami was at the Mirabeau Family Learning Center in Gentilly. He had earned his GED there. He had learned carpentry skills and leadership skills and he had received a monthly stipend.
“Youth transformation is what we do,” Mosadami says.
In 2004, when Aguillard found out he was facing a long-ago felony charge for possession and distribution of crack cocaine, Mosadami wrote a letter on his behalf to explain how his life had changed: He had gotten his GED. He was a junior deacon in his church. And he was a student at Delgado Community College.
“I could have been facing 15 years, but the judge and the D.A. and my lawyer, they all knew I didn’t need to be incarcerated,” Aguillard says.
He ended up on three years probation instead and was able to get his record expunged.
After Hurricane Katrina closed down Delgado in the fall of 2005, Aguillard enrolled in Snead State Community College in Boaz, Ala.
“I had gone on the computer looking for colleges, and on the website it said, ‘Small enough to know your name. Large enough to shape your future.’ I liked the sound of that,” Aguillard says.
Whenever he came back to New Orleans, he would try to find Mosadami, and he looked on the Internet, too.
“Of course, everything was lost at Mirabeau in the storm,” Mosadomi says. “So, when I came back to New Orleans, I started Kedila.”
A few weeks ago, Aguillard recognized YouthBuild counselor Greg Richardson at a Hornets game, and he finally learned how to find his mentor and friend. And that is how he happened to walk through the YouthBuild door at 1917 Martin Luther King Blvd and tell Mosadami what he’d been doing since they’d seen each other.
“Once I heard his story, I wanted you to know about it,” Mosadami tells me. “It’s a story everybody needs to hear.”
When the three of us sit down to talk, I ask Aguillard to start at the beginning. He looks at Mosadami and back at me.
“Really?” he asks. “Yes,” I say.
By the time he was 12, he was smoking marijuana and cigarettes and drinking alcohol, he tells me.
“I failed seventh grade, and they passed me on to eighth anyway. I failed eighth grade, and they passed me on to ninth anyway,” he says. “I dropped out of high school in ninth grade.”
By the time he was 15, he was selling drugs and using cocaine. His mother, a nurse, begged him to stop. She cried, she yelled, she tried to talk to him. But he wouldn’t listen.
“I just got caught up in doing the wrong thing,” he says. “That’s not who I am today.”
At 16, he got arrested for possession of crack cocaine and spent a week in jail. When he got out, he went right back to doing what he’d been doing.
“For three years, I sold drugs,” he says. “I just didn’t get caught.”
He remembers a certain night in January 2001 when he was on a date, and there were two women sitting at a nearby table.
“They were talking about God, and I was eavesdropping,” he says.
When one of the women left, he and his date started talking to the other one, and she ended up giving them a ride home.
“She told me, ‘I see you in darkness, but I see light at the end of the tunnel,’” he says.
She told him his life would start to improve in three months.
“I thought maybe I’d be making a lot of money selling drugs or that I’d be making it as a rapper,” he says.
But before she backed out of the driveway, she told him something else.
“She said, ‘I see you around people who love people the way you do,’” Aguillard says. “She said, ‘I see you inspiring people.’”
He never saw her again, but he always remembered her words. And shortly after that, he decided to go to church.
“When I went, the lady at the door embraced me. I had never seen her before,” he says. “She said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you. We’ve been praying for you.’ They welcomed me there with unconditional love, and I thought, ‘This is what that other lady was talking about.’”
He started going to Project Return, a voluntary 3-month program to help former prisoners turn their lives around, and that’s where he learned about YouthBuild.
YouthBuild, a nationwide program that gets financial support from the U.S. Department of Labor, is for young adults who have dropped out of school. They earn a monthly stipend to make ends meet while learning life skills and the value of working. Mosadami, director of the Kedila Family Learning Center, oversees and manages the center’s YouthBuild program and has a staff of eight and several volunteers.
“I was part of the first group, and the YouthBuild program was great,” Aguillard says. “After four months, I took my GED exam and passed it. And I learned the carpenter trade. I learned a skill I could use.”
Mosadami nods as he listens to Aguillard tell his story.
“So many kids are like Reggie was,” he says. “They’re failing LEAP and the GEE (the Graduate Exit Exam), and they can’t get a job because they have no skills. They can’t even go into the Army without a GED or a high school diploma.”
At Snead State Community College Aguillard got straight A’s. In 2007, he was one of 50 students at Alabama colleges named to the All Alabama Academic Team, and he was nominated for USA Today’s All-USA College Academic Team.
“Then I received three scholarships to go to the University of Montevallo, south of Birmingham,” he says. “I had a 3.78 GPA there.”
Now, he is selling cars at Don Bohn Buick GMC in Harvey and studying to take the GMAT so he can go to graduate school.
“I want to get an MBA in finance or accounting and also get some computer certifications,” he says.
Recently, Mosadami invited Aguillard to speak to his students.
“It was one of the best presentations we’ve had,” he says. “Reggie talked about how Project Return opened the door to YouthBuild and how YouthBuild opened the door to getting his associate degree and then his college diploma.”
The center still uses the symbol Aguillard’s class designed. It features an X formed by a hammer and a pencil and the words “Knowledge and integrity go hand in hand.” It’s on the blue T-shirts the students wear.
“This shows me I was part of something special,” Aguillard says. “It means a lot to me.”
For Mosadami, Aguillard is living proof that YouthBuild transforms young lives.
“All our students need is a push and a chance, and they will take it from there,” he says. “I feel like a proud papa. I can’t stop telling people about Reggie.”
For more information about YouthBuild, contact Dipo Mosadomi at Media or call 504.723.8831. You can also find other local YouthBuild programs at YouthBuild.
Sheila Stroup’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Living. Contact her at Media or 985.898.4831.
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