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Teen group has big impact on area youth

Malaika Lomax is certain she has found her purpose in life.

With a deep faith in God, she says He brought her to Demopolis for a reason, to reach out to teens, and a progression of events over the past few months are proving her right.

The 35-year-old substitute teacher came to Demopolis from Starkville, Miss., in July when her husband was transferred to Foster Farms.

In just a couple months after arriving here, Lomax started what has become one of the fastest growing teen leadership/community service organizations in the area. From weekly visits to the hospital and nursing homes to working in a soup kitchen and helping needy children at Christmas, they have been making their presence known in a positive way.

With nearly 200 teen girls and boys, the group has not only impacted the community, but is making a huge difference in the lives of those who join. Teachers and parents are amazed at seeing such a quick a change in attitudes, grades, moral decisions and self-esteem in the teens, most of which are Demopolis High School students.

Parents and other community leaders are getting involved now, too, and companies who see the long-term positive effects of this new organization are even talking about sponsoring the group.

It simply began with one person willing to listen, pray and take action.

“When I was substitute teaching, some of the girls and guys would confide in me and let me know some of their problems and the frustration over the lack of anything to do,” Lomax said. “Other things that they told me really shocked me, so I decided I needed to help them, to give them something to do. They needed an outlet.”

Lomax said she first prayed about what to do.

“I kept telling Him, ‘OK, God, I know you brought me here for a reason,” she said. “I talked to a couple of the teachers and I told them I wanted to do something. So, we went to the school board and to some of the churches and to Mr. (Ed) Ward at the Theo Ratliff Activity Center and told them what we had in mind, what we felt we needed to do.”

What Lomax envisioned was a teen leadership organization where teens could apply to join and not only strive to make a positive difference in their community through service, but work to maintain a set of standards that would make changes in their personal lives and foster a foundation for reaching their goals in life.

To remain a member of the group, which focuses on community service and involvement, spiritual and personal improvement, and positive self-esteem, the teens have to meet certain criteria’s such as maintaining a 2.0 GPA at school, and staying out of trouble. They also have to stay active in the group, which has a slew of activities throughout the month.

“I put a list up on the wall for teens to sign up and we had over 300 girls say they wanted to join,” said Lomax. “They had to fill out n application telling something about who they are and they also had to write an essay. “I boo-hooed and cried when I read them,” said Lomax. “I had some girls tell me, ‘Mrs. Lomax, I have a baby and I shouldn’t, but that’s all I know because that’s what they said I was supposed to be.’ We had girls that would tell me, ‘My momma is telling me I am not going to be nothing, and I want to prove to my family that I am going to be somebody.” We had girls say they didn’t want to live from paycheck to pay check like their families. Some even said they had tried to commit suicide. The one was the same, they all felt a group like this would make them better and they want that more than a lot people think they do.”

“We also have girls who were positive, from better conditions at home,” said Lomax. “They ranged from wealthy to poor, with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. They all came together – no one better than the other. One thing they are all learning is to have respect for themselves, have integrity. I’m not a quitter and I want them to know they are not a quitter too.”

The boys are separated into three individual groups, each one headed by a strong male role model and community leader. Lomax leads the girls, who have dubbed themselves ‘Divas 4 Lyfe’.

Parents have stepped up too. At a meeting at the Theo Ratliff Activity Center, ten parents stood up and pledged their support to the help the organization provide a positive and disciplined support to the teens through leadership.

The teens have worked to tackle a wide range of community service projects, but they also spend a lot of time getting to know each other in a variety of fun activities as well.

“When we first started meeting a lot of the girls didn’t like each other – we had to really work on that and some of the attitudes,” said Lomax. “Now, there is a strong bond between them and they support and encourage each other.”

Each week they visit a different community church together and if someone’s family members pass away, they all go to the funeral to show support to their sister member.

“I tell them, this is your extended family. We are always here for them when they need support,” said Lomax. “One of the main focuses is to be there for these kids, help them do right, and see the great potential they have in their futures.”

One of the captions in the Divas, Chelsea Cooke, 15, said she joined the group to strive to become a better person. “I really like it,” she said. “It really helps us and it’s fun too. Everything is improving.”

High school senior Shassha Mitchell said she got involved for the same reason, “I need improvement – a lot of improvement. This program is helping so much. I’ve been able to open up to people more and make friends better,” she said. “I love that all of the girls are getting to know each other better and working as a team to encourage each other.”

Part of a boys group called the ‘334 Boys’, Zack Griffin, 13, reiterated the same desire to do right. “It’s helping me be a better person and get better grades so I can stay in the group,” he said. “I can see an improvement in my attitude.”

“I like it that they want to do something to help us be better,” said 16-year-old Dion Pritchett, Jr., who’s father leads the 334 Boys. “I’m a captain in the group, which means I’m a role model as well. I have to straighten up and do what is right because it affects the others. I’ve seen a great improvement in myself. My grades are better and I stay out of the office now. I used to stay in trouble, now I don’t. We have too much good going on to mess it up by being stupid.”

The Divas and the 334 Boys will be in the parade today for Christmas on the River. Some will be riding a float they designed and built and other will be stepping – yes they have stepping teams too.

From their first meeting in September to now, no one can doubt that yes, it was God’s design to bring Malaika Lomax and her family to Demopolis to make a difference here. Because of it, it is safe to say that a lot of these teens she and the other leaders are impacting will make a difference in the lives of others, and so on. All because one person with an idea to fill a need decided to act upon it and take the first step.