The sounds of a drum line and the cheers of a college dance team and cheerleaders greeted almost 1,000 East Texas high school students as they walked into the CrossWalk Conference Center at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler.
With several hundred clapping adults standing outside the auditorium doors, the students looked uncertain of what was about to happen.
But for the next few hours, they heard from several accomplished athletes, actors and broadcast journalists about how they can accomplish their dreams and live a successful life.
Thursday’s event served as a kickoff for the first Ambassadors of Compassion program in Texas.
The leadership program, which has been active in several other states, aims to positively influence young people and equip them for success in life.
“Ultimately, we want to encourage students to stay in school,” Cindy Rudd, Texas director for Lift Up America’s Ambassadors of Compassion, said.
During the next 12 weeks, some area high school students, including some of those who attended the kickoff, will participate in a 12-week journey in which they hear about the four principles of LIFE: labor, influence, forgiveness and experiences.
Each week community members, who have agreed to be coaches, visit participating campuses and work with small groups of students for about one hour.
During that time, students will watch a video in which they will hear lessons related to the day’s topic, which addresses one of the LIFE principles.
The coach helps to facilitate that time and the students keep a journal to help process their experiences in the program.
Although the full program will address each principle in depth, the kickoff provided an upbeat introduction to the program.
Noel Gugliemi, who goes by Noel G and has acted in movies such as “The Fast and The Furious” and “Training Day,” spoke to the students about Labor, which requires perseverance.
“My whole life was about cruise control,” Gugliemi said. But that changed when his parents essentially walked out on him and left him with a handful of cash.
In a two-week timeframe, he went from a middle-class existence to life on the streets. He stole from people and made a lot of bad choices, he said.
“If I would have made a lot of (better choices) in life, I would have made my future a lot easier,” he said.
He also encouraged the students to look for quality and not quantity in friendships.
When students share their dreams with others, there are those who might shoot them down or tell them they can’t do something. But they cannot let that get to them, he said.
“You cannot let people tell you who you are,” he said. “You gotta know who you are.”
Although Gugliemi came out dressed in a baggy, tan-colored sweat suit and large cross necklace, toward the end of his presentation, he took that attire off to reveal black pants, a black button-down shirt and tie underneath.
“When changes happen on the inside, you can see the change from the outside,” he said.
Television personality Mario Lopez spoke via video about the power of influence. Everyone is constantly being affected by those around them, he said.
“Choose the type of friends who reflect who you are and who you want to become,” he said.
Former Bullard High School quarterback Charlie Moore, who completed his senior season as a wide receiver for Oklahoma State University, was on hand to talk about the power of influence as well.
Moore said sometimes he had to say no to his friends or to activities in high school in order to stay focused on his goals of being a good student and athlete.
Lauren Potter, star of the television show “Glee,” spoke through a video about how she had been bullied because she has Down syndrome. Yet, through the support of her family, kindness of others and her own talent and work, she’s been able to live her dream and become an actress.
“We can all have each other’s back,” she said. “We need to realize that we all are different, but that’s OK.”
She told the students to never give up on their dreams and always reach for the stars.
When it came to addressing the issue of forgiveness, the speakers shared their own experiences.
Ambassadors of Compassion Founder Eric Hannah shared how the bullying behavior of a teacher in middle school affected him for several decades until he decided to face it and let go of it.
“Don’t wait for the justice your heart wants or you may never get the freedom your heart needs,” he said.
Spencer Tillman, lead studio analyst for College Football Today on CBS, shared a story about how his older brother Felipe encouraged him to forgive.
When Felipe was dying at the age of 29 from AIDS-related lymphoma, he told Tillman about how he had been sexually assaulted for an extended period of time, but told no one because the perpetrator had threatened his life.
Pausing to compose himself, Tillman said his brother was on his deathbed asking him to forgive the person who had harmed him. And that person was still alive.
Tillman said his brother likely knew that if he didn’t forgive, he wouldn’t have been able to move on in life and achieve all he did professionally and personally.
“It’s really your ability … to extend forgiveness, that will allow you to succeed,” he said.
The final messages of the day dealt with the last letter of the acronym “E” and its word, experiences.
Tyler resident Morgan Wade, the 2013 gold medalist in the GoPro BMX Big Air X Games event, talked about how he responded to a challenge in his own life. In 2011, he had a big fall while practicing in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a competition. Because of that, he broke his wrist, a rib and ruptured his spleen, but made a full recovery.
However, the reality of that experience had the potential to paralyze him with fear or to motivate him. The key was how he responded to the situation, he said.
“I chose to make it a positive experience,” he said.
Before that fall, Wade had never won a medal at a mega ramp event. After the fall, he won three — one gold, one silver and one bronze.
He said hard work, dedication and living a drug and alcohol free life make up his formula for success.
“You can turn any negative (situation) into a positive,” he said. “Stay strong and work hard. Stay dedicated to (your) hopes and dreams.”
Students from seven schools were represented at the kickoff. These included Azleway Charter School, Bullard High School, John Tyler High School, Premier High School, Robert E. Lee High School, Willow Bend and Youth and Family Enrichment Centers.
Several students from Premier High School in Tyler said they appreciated the willingness of the speakers to share personal stories and enjoyed the fact that some local residents became successful in their fields.
Lee Principal Gary Brown said the program accentuates the whole idea of bringing the entire community together for the education of kids.
The program has the potential to create substantial ripple effects through the lives of the children it touches. About 150 Lee students attended the kickoff and will be involved in the 12-week program.
John Tyler High School Freshman Academy Dean Clay Scarborough said about 630 students, all of the school’s freshmen, attended the kickoff.
“We want to keep trying to find ways to invest in their lives,” he said, adding that he hopes the program will help students to see the opportunities available to them.