A child running away, being caught, put into foster care, and then returned to her home by the court is not an unusual story. Nor is it uncommon for a child to repeat this cycle many times over. However, all too often, society brands such a child as juvenile delinquent or an incorrigible runaway. Such could have been the fate of young Phyllis P. McNeal had she been less of a fighter than she proved herself to be.

McNeal's home life was violent—in today's terminology, dysfunctional. Having elder siblings did nothing to protect her: they had issues (dragons) of their own. So she ran, repeatedly, trying to escape the abusive environment only to be caught and returned. Gratefully, her cyclic pattern caught the attention of a therapist who earned her trust. Her therapist, Saundra C. Lang, LCSW, taught her about making choices based on their potential outcomes and empowered her with a sense of self-worth that encouraged her to make some bold, far-beyond-her-years decisions. Ms. Lang became her first "guardian angel."

At the age of 14, just prior to entering high school, Phyllis chose a drastic measure rather than be consumed into a life she did not want to live. She stood up for herself and requested to become a ward of the court rather than once again returning home. The court granted her request. As with most difficult choices, the road ahead would not be easy—but Phyllis McNeal was determined to beat the odds.

Becoming a ward of the court required going through the system—and that entailed being treated like an offender. Instead of being assigned a social worker, McNeal was placed on probation and spent 49 days locked in juvenile detention while awaiting a court order for the termination of parental rights.

Finally, in January 1974, Phyllis was placed in the Jacqueline Girls Home where Director/Owner Maxene L. McGinnis became her excellent role model and strict disciplinarian. Mrs. McGinnis was her second "guardian angel."

Under the guidance and tutelage of Mrs. McGinnis, Phyllis graduated high school with honors and subsequently attended California State University of Long Beach where, in 1982, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, specializing in Child Development. Later, she went on to earn a Master of Social Work degree from the California State University of San Bernardino—again graduating with honors in 2003.

Between her laudable academic achievements, Phyllis began fulfilling her life calling. "I had goals to reach," she says, passion ringing in her voice, "To work in the social services field, to help people fulfill their dreams."

She began working in social services as an intern in California Youth Authority (CYA), eventually becoming a state employee at the CYA reception center as a classification and group supervisor. Soon she was promoted to youth counselor and sponsored Young Adults Against Crime, taking young offenders into the community to give talks about their experiences and the negative impacts of their prior behavior.

Then she transferred to the Inglewood Parole Complex as a parole agent. Wanting to continue her community service, she launched the Straight Talk Program; engaging parolees, and inmates to speak candidly in community venues about their life experiences and how criminal behavior had led to incarceration.

Her community outreach with Straight Talk was separate from her work as a high-control parole agent. McNeal oversaw the most serious offenders. "It took a lot of time to supervise those parolees," she says. In addition, McNeal made multiple parolee arrests each week. "My days were unpredictable," she says. "I never knew what was going to happen."

Phyllis McNeal Black beltBeyond her contributions to the lives of her clients and the community at large, McNeal also taught defensive tactics to other Department of Corrections staff—being herself a black belt in karate, who has traveled around the world to participate in championship tournaments, of which she has won about 75.

Now, after retirement, Phyllis continues the work she founded while working as a parole agent: Straight Talk Program, Inc.

One may well ask, "What motivates us to do what we want to do? What makes us strive for success when the lights are out? What makes us visualize our dreams when we cannot sleep?"

For Phyllis P. McNeal, MSW the answer is simply this, "My work is dedicated to my two distinguished guardian angels." Straight Talk Program, Inc. is the way she pays it forward.

Part of this information was adapted from the article, "Best in the Business," written by Jennifer L. Harry for Corrections Today, June 1998.