ANDERSON — As an Anderson High School sophomore two years ago, Leo Williams III had multiple disciplinary referrals, poor grades, and stood out in class mostly for his ability to tell funny jokes.
Then, he met Second Missionary Baptist Church Pastor William O'Neal and William Young, a church deacon and former detective and assistant chief of Anderson Police Department.
The two men had just founded B.I.G.G., a mentoring program for at-risk kids like Leo. With support from Terry Thompson, then-principal of Anderson, they began meeting at the school.
Leo was one of the group's first 10 participants. After graduation in June, Leo will attend the Art Institute of Indianapolis to begin training as a chef.
He's the first member of B.I.G.G., which stands for Behavior, Influence, Grades, and Goals, to graduate and attend college.
O'Neal and Young both say Leo has overcome difficult odds to reach this point.
"When Leo first came into the program, he had a very shy nature." O'Neal said in a recent interview. "He would not make eye contact with us. He wouldn't verbalize many words at that particular time. Leo had referrals and just was not acting like I believed he could be acting.
"We have watched this young man transform over the years to having good grades, to no longer getting referrals, and actually being one of the leaders of the B.I.G.G. program," O'Neal added.
O'Neal and Young both say Leo had to overcome tremendous odds to become successful, just as they did in years past.
"We see a lot of us in them," said O'Neal about the young men he mentors. "I came from a neighborhood that was impoverished on the east side of Indianapolis. Many people thought I would not succeed."
"I applaud Leo," added Young. "I was one of his worst critics when we started because of his shyness. He would shy away and barely said anything. He would always smile, but would never look at you and that always bothered me.
"For 30 years, I've been in a profession that deals in nothing but statistics. Leo has beaten the odds on those statistics. That's why I say we should applaud Leo."
The youth has lived with his grandmother, Renae Lozada, for the past three years. While she couldn't divulge details of his difficulties over the years, Lozada indicated they've been significant.
"To see my 17-year-old grandson where he is right now ... . There are just no words to describe how proud I am of him," she said.
"To see what you have done, this epitomizes the village," Lozada said to O'Neal during an interview about the program last week. The support B.I.G.G. has provided outside their home has been a significant benefit, she added.
"I think so many of our young people don't have that, or don't know that (support) is available to them," she said.
Leo said he first became interested in cooking a couple of years ago when his grandfather was having back trouble. His grandfather liked the meals and suggested that becoming a chef might be a good career.
And it's something of a family business.
One cousin is a chef, and Leo's great-grandmother once cooked for Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"I like people eating my food," Leo said. "It makes me happy."
O'Neal contacted the art institute on Leo's behalf in February, and the assistant director of admissions was so moved by Leo's story, that she invited Leo to the school for a tour and meal prepared by students.
"It was amazing; the food was amazing," Leo said.
Initially, Leo will pursue a two-year associate degree in culinary arts. When completed he'll be able to find a job if he wants, O'Neal said. Or, Leo can stay in school and earn a bachelor's degree in culinary management.
"We want to make sure we do all we can to take this young man's dream of being a chef and make it a present day reality," O'Neal said.
From its humble beginning with 10 students three years ago, B.I.G.G. has expanded to 30 students. Anderson Elementary sponsors the program and so does Highland Middle School in addition to the high school.
"Our greatest joy is stories like this," O'Neal said, and he hopes other students will be inspired by Leo's success.
Seeing boys adopt strong work habits, good judgment and set positive goals in their lives is the primary focal point of the program, he said.
Leo is simply the trailblazer.
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Find out more
For more information about the B.I.G.G. mentoring program at Anderson High School, contact Rosemary Rogers, registrar: (765) 641- 2037
Anderson Elementary School: (765) 641-2092
Highland Middle School: (765) 641-2059