Bernadette Duginski, Community Assistant/Job Developer from Corona-Norco Unified School District, speaks to the high school as part of the Straight Talk Program (photo taken from video capture).

Bernadette Duginski, Community Assistant/Job Developer from Corona-Norco Unified School District, speaks to the high school as part of the Straight Talk Program (photo taken from video capture).

By Rosie Lovato, Correctional Case Records Analyst
Division of Adult Parole Operations

Retired Parole Agent II Phyllis McNeal, MSW, began the Straight Talk Program (STP) in 1990 with the goal of changing and saving lives by connecting youth and adults to resources and other social services.

Today she is still helping many people including high school students through motivational speaking events, such as at a recent visit to Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Riverside County.

McNeal, along with Gilbert Garcia, Melinda Williams and two brothers – Jerry Montoya, currently on parole, and Jeremy Montoya – come together to give back to the community by sharing their powerful stories and talking “straight out” to a classroom of teenagers.

Former gang member Jerry told the students, “What you strive to do, you become … whether striving for something positive or making choices that lead you down the wrong path. Strive to be better.”

His brother Jeremy encouraged the audience to take responsibility for their lives by taking advantage of the opportunities they have in a positive way.

Jeremy Montoya speaks to high school students.

Jeremy Montoya speaks to high school students. Gilbert Garcia is at right.

“The violence and gang life, it’s no joke. Every decision you make, there’s a consequence,” Jeremy said. “Prison is a sad place.”

Gilbert Garcia, who operates a boxing/martial arts gym in El Monte, found himself going to prison at age 50. He spoke to the class about life in prison as well as the positive things he learned such as relationship skills and conflict resolution.

Today at his gym he’s open to all the community, including those addicted to drugs and people on probation or parole, to help them be successful.

“A setback can be a comeback,” Garcia said. “Everyone can be whatever they want to be if they allow themselves to take the proper steps (such as getting an) education.”

Melinda Williams, founder of Self Determination Reentry Initiative, works with inmates and taps into their specific skills to assist them with their transition back to society upon release from prison.

“Everyone is important. You have to think about what you really want in life,” she said. “It’s important to come up with a plan and strive for it. Your destiny is in your hands, you have choices. Believe in yourself.”

McNeal said, “Sometimes you get caught for the little things, those little things can cause you a lot of time. It’s never too late to get on the right road. Doing it the right way, you can’t go wrong. Dreams do come true.”

(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)

Learn more about STP, www.stpinc.org

Melinda Williams is the founder of Self Determination Reentry Initiative.

Melinda Williams is the founder of Self Determination Reentry Initiative.