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Finding inspiration

By Staff | Dec 21, 2009

For many of us, probably nothing special happened on Wednesday, Dec. 2.

It was just another day that got us closer to Christmas and New Year’s.

Just thinking about that date put a smile on 17-year-old James Dawson’s face.

“I get to go home. I miss my mom, brothers and sister,” he says.

Six months ago, the Minneapolis teen found out the hard way that being young doesn’t excuse a person from their mistakes.

Dawson was sent to Youth Services International Academy in Elmore — a residential treatment center for troubled males and females ages 13-19.

“I did what other people wanted me to do and got into trouble. It was really hard for me to say no,” he says.

Dawson hopes those days are in the past and just faded memories.

Today, he’s back home — able to come and go as he pleases.

That may not sound like a big deal — but, it is for someone who’s a junior in high school.Being away from home for several months has given Dawson an appreciation for those things he took for granted.

He’ll spend a lot of time reconnecting with friends at Minneapolis South and family members.

Getting to sit down and actually talk with big brother Dominique, however, may be a little difficult.

At times, Dawson will have to settle for sharing his 6-foot-seven-inch, 240-pound brother with 15,000 other people at Williams Arena — Dominique is a power forward on the University of Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team.

“Me, my mom and sister have gone to a game. It was something,” he says. “To this day I look up to Dominique.”

Ending up at YSI turned out to be a good thing for Dawson.

A vigorous fall schedule involved going to classes, playing football and group sessions.

Some mornings it meant getting up at 5 a.m. to be at the Wildcat Cafe by 6 a.m. for a six-hour shift.

At 3:30 p.m., Dawson is carrying a notebook and a “Civics” textbook.

Another day of school is over.

The rest of the day will consist of “down time.”

There will be time for recreational activities and exercise.

Everyone eats supper together.

Then, there are group sessions to address emotional and psychological issues.

There’s no television for anybody. Only on very, very special occasions.

Students who earn TV privileges do so either by getting good grades or making progress in the program.

By 8 p.m. it’s time to study and at 9:20, it’s lights out.

YSI’s staff and educational programs gave Dawson the structure and discipline he was missing.

Yet, one has to wonder whether “big brother Dominique” somehow provided the motivation to graduate from YSI.

“One day he told my mom he missed me. That’s when I felt wanted, that I had a place in the family,” says Dawson. “I always thought he didn’t want to be bothered by me.”

Dawson will tell you Jeremy Hough also has played a big role in helping turn his life around.

Hough is a supervisor and the football coach at YSI.

“He was always there, pushing me to do better,” Dawson says of Hough. “I use to think he was just criticizing, but he was trying to encourage me.”

There was one particular occasion when the coach was tough on his quarterback and defensive end.

In a game they won, Dawson finished with some impressive offensive stats.

Rather than issuing words of praise, Hough let his player know how the one interception he threw could have cost his team the game.

“At times it seemed I was never able to please him,” Dawson says.

Hough smiles and says he just didn’t want his star player to get “too big of a head.”

Hough calls Dawson “the most well-rounded athlete” to ever attend YSI, and says he probably could play any sport in college if he applies himself.

Like others before him, Dawson has matured as a person and developed self-confidence while at Elmore.

The teen admits on the outside he exhibited a high self-image, but internally possessed low self-esteem.

“I wasn’t being truthful to those around me. And, I was lying to myself,” he says. “I came here for a good reason. I just wished I didn’t have to hurt my friends and family.”

Returning home and to familiar surroundings won’t be easy.

Dawson realizes the temptations for getting into trouble will be there.

This time, however, he says he equipped with the “free-will” needed to say no.

“James use to take everything, all his problems onto himself. Now, he knows he can turn to others for help,” Hough says.

When they leave, YSI students are told to think smart or pick up the phone and call a staff member at the school if they need to.

Dawson expresses with pride that he’s now on track to graduate from high school.

He wants to attend college and someday be an elementary teacher — second- or third-grade students.

“I want to teach them how to do the right and positive things in life,” he says.

English is Dawson’s favorite subject.

He likes learning new words and adding to his vocabulary.

“No” and “free-will” are probably two words at the top of his list.