Lakeland Grace Academy
Teen Girls Experience the Joy of Transformation
By Cheryl Johnston, Focus Magazine
After one visit to Lakeland Grace Academy, visitors are usually convinced that unconditional love, realistic boundaries and a gracious God can transform lives.
They will also be impressed by the peaceful environment and happy, smiling faces.
In this non-profit, faith-based adolescent residential program for 13-to-18 year-old girls, executive directors Greg and Essie Del Valle and their staff have established a loving, relational and affordable care program to help students with life-controlling problems such as low self-esteem, depression, at-risk behaviors and rebellion.
The 501(c)3 charitable organization offers opportunities for local volunteers willing to be screened to serve as well. “We can always benefit from the wisdom and experience of people in the community,” Greg explained. “For example, a Southeastern University professor comes weekly now to mentor girls in math and science. And we’d love to have someone familiar with aquaponics teach about growing vegetables we can use in our meal preparations. Life skills lessons are especially meaningful.”
The Del Valles have worked with Teen Challenge academies for the past nine years, four here in Lakeland and the prior five in Jupiter, Florida. They retired from successful careers in law enforcement and administration. Now they delight in witnessing the changed lives, countenances, and hope for the future young girls experience during their approximately 15-month stay.
After his military service, Greg worked as a Broward County deputy sheriff. Being a preacher’s kid, he and Essie used their energy and spare time to serve a large church youth group. God’s next direction was to reach out full-time to troubled girls.
“You can have the perfect house, raise all your children with the same love, principles and values and still have one with a ‘taste’ or ‘appetite’ for things not ‘served’ or supported at home,” said Greg. “Our students are intelligent, gifted teens who have had their way, taken advantage of kind parents, and taken for granted all that’s been sacrificed and provided. We’re talking about teens that are throwing away what God, in his sovereignty, has given them. We’re describing daughters who prefer finding favor among negative friends than family, and who have no concern for what their parents see, think, or feel.”
“But,” he added, “this we know. In their deepest heart, they want to live productive and happy lives. They want to do and give and be appreciated.”
The National Association of Christian Education (NACE) accredited and nationally recognized LGA provides a 24/7 live-in staff for its maximum enrollment of 32 girls. In addition to supervised study programs, students are individually counseled and have a weekly group session. Families attend weekend sessions that provide wise counsel for the new future they will eventually enjoy with their daughter.
LGA Principal Romeo Del Valle is a Southeastern University graduate who oversees the academy. Uniquely qualified teachers guide students, who advance their own education on individual computers, through the subject-specific distance learning courses of the award-winning, Christian-based Ignatia curriculum.
Weekdays, class begins with an 8 a.m. Bible study and continues with academic courses until 2 p.m. Through five core subjects and a variety of electives, students encounter exciting multimedia learning tools, which enhance the teacher’s ability to customize lessons for each young woman’s needs. Because they move at their own pace, many are able to either catch up or advance faster in their studies. By taking courses year-round, they can add interesting electives, strengthen study skills and even improve their GPA. Educational field trips are also part of the fun.
LGA teachers send home bi-weekly progress reports and are accessible to parents for consultation by phone, e-mail, web-portal and on family weekends. For future reference, the school maintains professional transcripts, progress reports, and other records.
Upon completion of the program, students have transferred to other high schools, colleges and universities around the nation. Graduation ceremonies, which include an elegant dinner for grads, families and invited guests, are a beautiful celebration of each girl’s successes.
In order to open students’ minds to a broader vision for their future, school also includes instruction in fine arts, sports, and cultural literacy. Jamaris Del Valle teaches music, dance, drama, art and poetry and in the process helps the girls discover their unique gifts and talents. The school competes annually in a national talent competition. In 2012, nine of the thirteen competing at the state level advanced to nationals.
LGA athletes are competitors, too. Greg Del Valle dreams of forming a girls’ rugby team in Lakeland because the Jupiter team has been so successful. “Sports promote teamwork and boost self-esteem,” he explained. “These girls have champions’ hearts, so we like to see them develop their physical abilities as well as their minds.”
Hurt, frustration, anger and fear are the typical parental emotions when struggling with a rebellious young person. Few things are as painful as helplessly watching a daughter’s potential slip away through self-destructive behavior. If you’ve ever asked “why” and “how,” then you are at the right place. There is HOPE.
What makes the Teen Challenge program one of the most successful of its kind, with a national success rate of 70% – 86%, is its ability to increase students’ “Emotional Intelligence” four times greater than when they entered the home’s doors. It’s a loving process.
Family weekends are a critical component, because without new understanding repeated patterns don’t bring different results. Through teaching sessions and teambuilding activities, members learn new strategies and strengthen their own relationship with Christ. In turn they can minister in love to their daughter.
“Families partner with us in re-establishing some old boundaries and some critically important new ones,” said Greg. “Essie and I love these weekends, because we’ve seen hope restored and heard some amazing testimonies of the help they’ve received.”
At LGA, struggling girls discover their unique God-given abilities as they redirect their time, talent and energy into positive endeavors. In the process, their self-esteem and knowledge of who they are in Christ elevates. Self-destructive behaviors disappear and accountability and responsibility become second nature.
They beam when they experience the inevitable reward of doing the “right things for the right reasons.” More importantly, they uncover and learn to embrace the unbridled joy a purpose-filled life provides. The happy, purpose-driven girls with renewed and rejuvenated hearts step into their promise-filled future with restored families and relationships, set free by the Truth of God’s unconditional love, regardless of their actions. They are determined to follow the path He has planned and realize their dreams.
So, how can good people everywhere help?
LGA sincerely appreciates the support of the George Jenkins Foundation and nine area churches, but tax-deductible donations and willing volunteers will allow them to do more. To share, visit 6754 S. Carter Road, phone 863-647-1944, go to LakelandGraceAcademy.com, or e-mail LakelandGraceAcademy@lakelandtci.com. The inspirational testimonies are worth your time online. At LGA, hope is only an inquire away.
Please note: The LGA admissions criteria does not permit Medically Unstable, Physically Violent Histories, Sexual Abuse Perpetrators, Psychotic Disorders, or Parents who are unwilling to fully participate.