lucille-oneal-web.jpgWEST PALM BEACH — Nathalie was thrilled to learn that Lucille O’Neal, mother of superstar basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, was coming to speak at her school. But what the 17-year-old student of the PACE Center for Girls in West Palm Beach didn’t know was how much of an impact the meeting would have on her.

When asked what she took away from O’Neal’s hour-long speech at the school on the morning of Dec. 3, her answer was simple: “To dream.”

Before then, Nathalie – last name withheld — didn’t realize that her dreams really could come true. But upon hearing O’Neal, the author of a new book, “Walk Like You Have Somewhere To Go,” she has a new outlook. “Now that I’ve heard her, I feel like I can do it,” she said.

O’Neal brought a poignant message of hope to Nathalie and about 40 other girls at the school, which is a Department of Juvenile Justice Day Treatment Center. The center has a contract with the Palm Beach County School System to provide academic services for at-risk girls ages 12 to 17.

The session was broadcast via satellite to four other facilities for at-risk youth, including a detention center.

Voncia Haywood, principal of Alternative Education/Department of Juvenile Justice Youth Services for the school district, supervises teachers and staff at those facilities.  She felt it was important to give O’Neal’s talk wide exposure because she has had experiences “that would be beneficial and motivational for all of our students.”

And O’Neal did speak about those experiences, describing how she overcame teen pregnancy and alcoholism to achieve her greatest dream of becoming a motivational speaker, a college graduate and an author.

She said when she was 17 and pregnant with Shaquille, arguably one of the best professional basketball players ever, she was lost, confused, ashamed and had committed a cardinal sin in her household by having sex before marriage.

Nathalie and many of the other students at PACE, an alternative school for girls, could relate to O’Neal’s experiences. They have had their share of struggles in life and in the regular school system. Some are several grade levels behind, while others never were able to cope with authority.

Still others were considered “slow learners” and quit going to school altogether. For whatever reason, the traditional schooling just didn’t work out, said Angela Clarke, executive director of PACE. She says the girls just need a little more patience, understanding and attention. Lucille O’Neal was there to make sure they got it. She picked Nathalie out of the crowd and asked if she could give her a big hug.

“I was shocked,” said Nathalie, who explained in an interview that she ended up at PACE after getting “sidetracked” in her life. “I said, ‘Oh my God, me?’” she said, surprised that O’Neal singled her out for attention.

O’Neal told the girls that, at age 12, it was her dream to become a motivational speaker. On a day like this one, she was living out her dream.

And while Nathalie  doesn’t have teen pregnancy to cope with, she can relate to falling off track and making the most of a second chance.

She and the other girls at the school were encouraged to read O’Neal’s book prior to her visit, though it wasn’t mandatory. She read four chapters and was impressed with how O’Neal made it through a teenage pregnancy.

But it was her classmate, 17-year old, Lachantel, who won a prize for reading O’Neal’s  entire book. She too, was inspired by O’Neal’s persistence in moving forward despite hurdles in life. “She’s a very good person,” said Lachantel, last name also withheld.

“And I want to start listening to my parents more, and start having a good attitude, and walk with my head up, and stop letting negative things put me down,” said Lachantel, after hearing O’Neal speak. Like Nathalie, she believes the school can help her to get on track and be the first in her family to go to college.

O’Neal told the girls they can succeed. “Make the most of your experience here,” she told them. “Now is the time to make something of yourself. Use this time in your life to make it count toward something,” she urged them.

Alma Horne, graduation career coach for students in Juvenile Justice and Youth Services Schools in the school district, coordinated O’Neal’s visit to PACE.

“Mrs. O’Neal has a story to tell and it parallels the girls’ lives at PACE. She is enthusiastic about presenting her story and, hopefully, they can learn from her experiences,” Horne said.

“I wanted her to come here because I knew that she would be an excellent role model for them to meet and greet.”