Reichert House 'life-changing,' new grads say


Tracy Williams, 18, high fives fellow graduate Cory Smith, 12, at the Reichert House Youth Academy's Baccalaureate Ceremony at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church on Thursday in Gainesville. The keynote address was delivered by Jacob Atem, one of the original “Lost Boys of Sudan."

Lee Ferinden/ Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 9:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 9:48 p.m.

When the neighbors saw Tracy Williams walking down the street, they knew trouble couldn't be far behind.

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Tracy Williams, 18, high fives fellow graduate Cory Smith, 12, at the Reichert House Youth Academy's Baccalaureate Ceremony at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church on Thursday in Gainesville. The keynote address was delivered by Jacob Atem, one of the original “Lost Boys of Sudan."

Lee Ferinden/ Staff photographer

In his early teen years, Williams says he was notorious in the neighborhood for knocking over trash cans, breaking glass bottles in the street and stealing toys out of people's yards.

But that all changed when he joined Reichert House.

Williams, now 18, is graduating from Eastside High School in a few weeks with an A average and a scholarship to attend Florida Atlantic University, where he will study computer engineering.

He gave the senior address at Reichert House's annual Baccalaureate Ceremony on Thursday evening at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.

"We've had some rough times," he said to the 51 Reichert House honorees from fifth, eighth and 12th grades.

Williams acknowledged his troubled childhood, and his metamorphosis after entering Reichert House. Three years after starting the program with a reputation for having the most behavioral referrals in his school, Williams ended ninth grade with a GPA of 4.0 and the award for "freshman of the year."

He'd turned his life around.

"I beat that stereotype," he said.

Reichert House is an after-school program that was established in 1987 to help boys with the transition from childhood to adulthood.

At its location on Southeast Second Avenue, boys between ages 11 and 18 receive academic tutoring, participate in paramilitary training and learn life skills.

"It transforms their lives," said Sharla Head-Jones, a member of Reichert House's educational staff.

Many of the young men who are graduating this year started the program as soon as it was available to them, she said. Some of them, like Williams, were coming in with D's and F's on their report cards, and behavioral records from their schools that were an inch thick, she said.

Now those same students are on the honor roll and presidents of school clubs, said Head-Jones, and are attending college on scholarships in the fall.

But boys enter Reichert House for a variety of reasons, and not all of them are in trouble.

"People think that the Reichert House serves only ‘bad' children, and that is not right," Head-Jones said.

Kenny Johnson, who is about to graduate from the International Baccalaureate program at Eastside, said he's always been a good student.

But something was missing in his life.

His father went to prison when Johnson was in sixth grade.

At home, he's surrounded by women — his mom and her friends. That's all right, he said, but he often felt a void when he needed to talk about "male things."

So a year ago, his mother enrolled him in Reichert House.

The program — where Johnson found not one but several male role models and dozens of like-minded boys his age — was "life-changing," he said.

"It filled that gap for me," he said.

At the ceremony, Reichert House directors highlighted Johnson's achievements and his future: He will attend Florida A&M, where he will study computer information science and pharmacy.

After the ceremony, Williams stood with his mother, Tabresha Johnson, both grinning ear to ear.

Reichert House saved their life, Johnson said.

As a single mother of seven, times have been tough for their family.

Williams especially had a hard time without a father in his life.

"Thanks to the Reichert House, he has several," his mother said.

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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