From the Pen of Carter P. Smith
Steve Lewis said I needed to get to know him. That’s all I needed to know.
Steve, a well-respected rancher, conservationist and outdoorsman, was talking about Leon McNeil, a teacher and nonprofit leader from San Antonio who has dedicated his life’s work to making a difference in the lives of young people who need all the help they can get. Once again, Steve was right.
Steve introduced me to Leon and his wife, Leticia, at a recent Texas Wildlife Association convention. They were trailed by a gaggle of inner-city junior high and high school students participating in the McNeils’ innovative City Kids Adventures program. What grabbed my attention right away were the kids. They were all bright, curious, attentive and engaged, and acted as if there was no other place in the world they would rather be on that Saturday afternoon. It was, let’s just say, not your ordinary adult-teenager encounter.
But then again, Leon McNeil is no ordinary teacher. As I came to learn, Leon knows well the gritty inner-city streets and difficult homes from which many of those kids come. For starters, he is a product of both. For another, he’s come back to change them for the better, one kid at a time.
A native son of San Antonio’s urban core, Leon had a childhood that was no walk in the park. He first left town thanks to a football scholarship to Abilene Christian University. While there, some teammates introduced him to a world far from the one he grew up in. He learned to hunt and fish and love the outdoors. Along the way, he picked up the value of hard work and discipline, and learned to respect himself and others. It was a game-changer for Leon, and thankfully he has decided to pass it on.
The McNeils’ vehicle for change is City Kids Adventures (CKA), a San Antonio nonprofit focused on “at risk” kids ages 7-17. With a mission of “Introducing inner-city youth to a world beyond their communities” and a motto of “Hard work has many rewards,” CKA fosters a family-like environment for the kids and helps to instill in them the important values of a positive work ethic, responsibility, accountability, discipline, high moral character and educational success. It is a year-round commitment for all participants, about 150 in a given year, where the older kids help mentor the younger ones and kids are expected to stay involved beyond high school.
A hallmark of CKA is that everything must be earned through achievements in school, athletics, relationships and service. The reward is the chance to travel and to participate in outdoor recreational activities like fishing, hunting, camping, canoeing and kayaking, swimming and learning about nature — experiences that otherwise would be of a very distant nature to them. And on each outing, whether at a ranch of a participating sponsor or at a state park, they are expected to give something back in the form of a work project to leave the place better than they found it.
When I last spoke to the McNeils, they were about to embark with about a dozen or so kids on a three-week boating adventure up the Gulf Coast into Louisiana and Florida. The kids, who had all earned their places on the boat, would get to visit LSU, Tulane and Florida State, spend time at a marine research institute, visit businesses and tour factories and museums. They would also get plenty of opportunities to fish along the way.
Texas needs more Leticia and Leon McNeils, two Texans who give back more to our youth and the outdoors in any given year than they will ever take in their lifetimes. On behalf of all of us at Texas Parks and Wildlife, thank you Leon and Leticia and CKA. Texas’ lands, waters, fish, wildlife and parks and, most importantly, our youth are better off because of you.