Giving Back: Neal providing options for youth through recreation
Published 5:45 pm Wednesday, August 27, 2014
By Stephen Hemelt
LAPLACE — Raffeal Neal keeps the funeral pamphlets in the drawer of his desk of the young people close to him that died due to violence.
He can’t forget; he doesn’t want to forget.
As a juvenile officer with the 40th Judicial District Court, Division B, Neal sees firsthand as youth in the community enter the judicial system, making it more difficult for them to become professionally successful as they mature.
It’s those experiences, and through former work as a teacher and employee with the New Orleans Job Crop, that drive Neal to continue his work as CEO of the Heat Youth Organization, a nonprofit operating in St. John the Baptist Parish that offers youth football and basketball recreation opportunities to area boys and girls.
“My passion stems from being more proactive with (children),” Neal said. “I want to give them a lot of opportunities so they can make better choices. Those kids that don’t get involved with recreation or some type of activity, we end up seeing them in our court system. Of course, they go from juvenile court to adult court.
“We try to get them involved early on and keep them involved so hopefully we don’t see them. It doesn’t mean we will not see some of them anyway, but at least they are on a better track working with us on the front end and seeing less of us on the back end.”
Neal, a Ponchatoula native, attended the University of New Orleans, where he earned a juvenile and family services degree and met his wife, the former Tina Cox, a St. John Parish native.
They settled in LaPlace after school, and Neal began working in youth athletics in 1993 as way to coach his son, Brandon. However, it was never completely about being just his son’s coach.
More than 20 years later, his work with youth from all neighborhoods led to his recognition in front of the St. John the Baptist Parish Council this summer.
District III Councilman Lennix Madere Jr. said, with recreation, people like Neal bring the community together.
“Instead of the kids having guns and knives, they will have bats, balls and gloves in their hands,” Madere said. “I think Mr. Neal is one of the individuals that is trying to do this. I applaud him for the effort.
“One of the problems with some of the youths we have — and I mean kids from 5 to 25 — is they need some type of activity in their life. Through recreation and people like Mr. Neal, we can make the community better.”
Today, Neal helps coach his daughter Bria, a member of the St. John Lady Heat basketball program.
He said the St. John Heat umbrella expanded to include girls basketball because of limited options in the area offered to just young, female athletes.
Neal is also a Special Olympics volunteer through his work as a unified partner, someone without an intellectual disability who is paired with athletes with intellectual disabilities on the same team to compete against other unified teams.
Neal teamed with Calvin Berry of Destrehan and David Green of Montz to work with Dwight Johnson and Theotis Ursin of Reserve to earn the unified basketball team Silver Medal at this summer’s 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey.
“That was a great challenge,” Neal said. “You can go and play with (the Special Olympians) and be a coach on the floor. That was a draw to me, to be able to play with them and put them in positions where they can be successful.
“It was great experience. Louisiana had over 100 athletes and partners, and, altogether, we had almost 3,500 athletes and partners (at the Special Olympics USA Games).”
For more information on the St. John Heat sports teams, log onto heatyouthorg.com.