Ileana Garcia: PAL Girl, Then and Always

by Karen Fleming

Way back when: fourteen-year-old Ileana Garcia joined the Police Explorers in Miami PAL. And now, she's a practicing tax attorney! Where does the time go?

Ileana at the U.S. Department of Justice

Let's turn back the clock.

But first, not too far back. Ileana spoke at the annual State of Florida Association of Police Athletic/Activities Leagues (SFAPAL) Youth Directors' Conference in the Life after High School Break-out Session in July 2017. This is much of the content of what she told the PAL kids:

Ileana started with the Police Explorers in Miami PAL when she was fourteen.

"PAL opened my eyes. I loved the Police Athletic League (PAL) Youth Directors' Council (YDC) conferences. The first time I traveled was with PAL," she told the PAL kids attending the session. (Ileana describes a simple childhood; for example, she said eating out meant that her family ate at McDonald's.) "PAL opened my eyes. I found out there is more; the world is bigger than me and my city. I wanted to meet new people. I liked hearing about other people's experiences," she said.

"I used to be shy when speaking public because of all the hand gestures I would use when I spoke, I tried to fit in. But I was advised in PAL to be myself," Ileana said. "I realized I was responsible for myself and my happiness after high school. I decided to go to college because those without college plans weren't allowed to attend my high school prom. Because of my grit and hustle, I was able to attend college for free.

"I was a criminal justice major. I had an internship. I thought about being a diplomat. I interned at the American embassy in Jamaica for a whole summer, and had a blast. I earned a master's in political science at FAMU. I worked in Obama's re-election campaign. I then moved to Atlanta, but career-wise, it wasn't working, and it seemed like a step back. "I had an epiphany: I wanted to go to law school. I wanted to create change and empower. So I went to the St. Thomas University School of Law. I failed the bar exam the first time, but passed it this past April (2017). I practice tax law now. I want to be a judge down the line, and I also want to teach part-time in a law school.

"What's important is not what you have; it's who you have," she said. "People matter. Hug someone. You don't know what people are going through, so be less quick to judge and more quick to listen. I thank God, and I thank PAL for where I am today.

"We are oblivious to how fortunate we are in the United States. We have choices, opportunities, and we forget how privileged we are. When something bad happens, remember it could have been worse. Be grateful for what you have because there is someone praying for what you take for granted. Mentors helped me get where I am now. Find friends who support and encourage you. I didn't get where I am by myself. Avis Brown and Rhonda [Scott] helped me; Linda Roberts helped me. They mentored me."

And looking back much further . . .

Ileana Garcia in 2007

Ileana at the Florida House in D.C.

In 2007, Ileana Garcia was one of three college-bound Police Athletic League (PAL) kids who got a jump-start on paying tuition and buying books with a $1000 scholarship from the State of Florida Association of Police Athletic/Activities Leagues (SFAPAL). People who knew Ileana as a teenager had a lot to say about what a joy she was. Here's a sampling of what they said in 2007: "Miss Garcia has the spirit, endurance, and dedication to 'get the job done.' Ileana is an outstanding worker, a people-person, and no task is too little or too great for her to tackle, and without complaints. Her focus is on excellence. She has a humble and sensitive spirit and is a pleasure to work with." Lynda Strachan-Roberts, community involvement specialist with the Miami Police Department, could say all this about Ileana Garcia and mean it because she has known Ileana since 2002 when Ileana joined the Miami Police Explorer's program and then later, the Miami Police Athletic League Youth Directors' Council (YDC).

"What a great asset she became," Ms. Strachan-Roberts wrote. "[As an Explorer,] she began her work with the Community Relations Section under the Police Athletic League detail. Her duties included, but were not limited to, answering questions in the community, mentoring students, computer skills with tutoring students, stocking supplies, assisting in planning and organizing community events, along with teaching and coaching several sport activities. Ileana has always been willing to contribute to positive activities, and is extremely dependable. "Over the years, I've seen Ileana overcome many obstacles in her life," Ms. Strachan-Roberts continued. "She has had some challenges that shouldn't have been. She has addressed issues of financial hardship and had to work on finding small jobs to help out with her family and school needs. Ileana has always shown the ability to face situations in her life with a positive attitude and the fight to win."

Ileana with clipboards from prizes she won at a silent auction.

Officer Avis Brown-Tucker has also known Ileana as a Police Explorer. "She is assertive yet humble and sensitive. Ileana has earned the respect and continuous support of the [Miami] Police Department, the Police Explorers, and the Miami PAL, her school and her community." Officer Brown-Tucker pointed out "as commander for Explorer Post 106, Ileana has donated more than 600 hours of time to this program alone. As an Explorer, she initiated a program within her post to dedicate time at Camillus House on a quarterly basis, feeding the homeless. Additionally, in January, she collected clothes during the cold weather to give to the homeless population. She and other Explorers performed a clean-up on Calle Ocho."

Ileana showed leadership skills in the Miami PAL Youth Directors' Council (YDC), as Officer Brown-Tucker pointed out: She "quickly rose through the ranks" becoming in short order, the secretary for two years, and then the president for her local Miami PAL YDC, as well as serving as the president for PAL YDC Region One at the state/regional level. She served as second vice president of the Vocational Industrial Club of America, (VICA/Skills, USA), and vice president for a group called Dancers with Style.

"Ileana is a good student," Officer Brown-Tucker wrote, "with a current (March 2007) GPA of 3.3." She was on the honor roll, won an award for being the best cosmetology student, and received the Do the Right Thing Award for leadership.

And then, in the Fall of 2007, Ileana was attending Florida A & M University in Tallahassee. In her own words from 2007, Ileana said, "I love it. I think this is like the best school I could have ever attended! I'm having so much fun. The college life is fun. You learn a lot. It's very different from high school-everybody's very independent. You're responsible for yourself. You're parents aren't there to push you. Your teachers aren't either. It's just you. You have to make sure you stay focused. There are a lot of parties and everything, but I stay focused. I do all my homework. I study for everything before I party. I was going to start working--I found a job on campus, but I decided I can't be doing that right now because I don't want it to get in the way of school. Just one math homework takes up three hours."

She moved on campus in August [2007] and shares a dorm room with a roommate from Clearwater. "We get along just fine," she said. "The room has two beds, two closets, two desks and a TV." Ileana's classes include African-American history; health and modern living; college prep math; freshman communication skills, which is like writing-English, she said; and college orientation, which is designed to help her choose a major. "I'm still undecided on my major," she said. "It may be either business administration or criminal justice.

"I'd like to thank PAL for this scholarship," Ileana said. "It really did help me out a lot because, like college books are very expensive. One book is $160.00! So it really did help me." Officer Brown-Tucker wrote that even in the face of tragedy with the sudden death of Ileana's father in June of 2006, Ileana has persevered and "it hasn't stopped her ongoing stride for excellence." PAL was proud to offer support to this deserving young lady so she could continue to prepare for a bright, secure future.

Adjusting the Clock to Fast Forward: Ileana Garcia, August 8, 2017

Ileana and her boss at the U.S. Tax Court where she is admitted to practice.

"When I first joined PAL, I was fourteen years old," Ileana said. "It was my first time traveling out of Miami. I never had been exposed to anybody outside my culture in Miami. It's very mixed, but everyone that I hung around with in my high school was very Hispanic. When I went to my first YDC training and they were teaching us how to be good public speakers, and also when I first went to the (YDC) conference, all the kids were like, "Oh, you speak weird; you have an accent; where are you from?" That's when I started to have doubts about myself, because I never thought I sounded different from anybody else, because I was born and raised in the United States. So I stopped talking with my hands, because that's something I did regularly and I didn't notice it until one of the kids at the conference pointed it out. So I thought I should stop doing that.

"When we were going through the public speaking training [at the PAL conference], and they showed me how, telling me I looked very restricted, like I was holding something in because I wasn't talking with my hands all the time. I was hiding them behind me. That's when Ed (Hayes) was there, and they were telling me I had to be myself, you have to be proud of where you come from, and all of these guys are going to love your accent, so don't worry about it. Just be you. So that's when I thought, 'okay.'

"And when I went to college (Florida A and M University), all the guys were like, 'Oh my God, where is she from, she has an accent.' It was funny; everything they (at PAL) said was true, but I didn't notice it till later. My accent was normal for me; in Miami, we all have this accent. It's very Hispanic, and we all have some kind of accent, and we don't tell each other, 'You have an accent.' When I went off to college, I went to a historically black university, and everybody was American, I was the only Hispanic and so my accent seemed exotic to the other students there. So that's when I remembered back when PAL said this would happen, and it was funny.

"First I was a Police Explorer in Miami, the downtown office, which is the central office, and that's when my advisor said perhaps I should join PAL, you're a leader, so she got me involved and she wrote a letter recommending that I be considered for PAL Girl of the Year. I did get the scholarship.

"I still keep in touch with Marcus Dixon, from Coral Gables, who got a PAL scholarship at the same time.

"I went to the trainings in Fort Wilderness. I remained with PAL all through high school, then I became a youth counselor for PAL for two summers. So I was involved even after high school. I'm now living in Miami FL [August 2017]. When I look back, if it wasn't for PAL, I would never have been on--I've always been on someone's executive board. Through college, I was in all the organizations and was on the executive boards. When I went to law school, I was in five organizations at the same time. I've always been an overachiever, ever since PAL. Right now, I'm on the Dominican American Bar Association Board of Directors. I don't want to look back and say, "Oh, I should have done this or that. So I do everything, and I have no regrets." I don't have to look back and say, 'I wish I had done more in college; I wish I had done more in law school.'

"And now that I'm an attorney, I remain very involved. There are a lot of voluntary bar associations, and I'm a part of a few, but I don't want to overwhelm myself, but I always remain very involved because I don't want to look back and regret not doing everything I could have done. I want to be able to look back and say 'I had a great life.' "

Ileana with her cute dog.

Ileana Garcia in 2018 & 2019

In 2018, Florida PAL hosted its 20th Anniversary Youth Directors Conference and when Florida PAL Program Director Rhonda Scott reached out to ask Ileana if she would be able to attend and share her story; Ileana responded with an enthusiastic 'YES'! Without hesitation she agreed to attend all 4 days and she worked alongside fellow alumni from start to finish. She spoke so eloquently about the realities of being a young person in today's world striving to make a difference during the Life After High School Session. Her enthusiasm and positive energy is infectious and endearing. Florida PAL received a lot of positive feedback in surveys concerning Ileana.

This year (2019) Florida PAL reached out to its alumni base to help garner support for crucial legislation to support PAL programs statewide and when they contacted Ileana she immediately got to work. She made a substantial impact in South Florida with the legislators she spoke with. Ileana emailed, called, and followed up. So much so that she shared an amusing email from a legislator that said the following... "Hi Ms. Garcia, I voted yes in support of the PAL.
Thank you reaching out."

Ileana is determined and she was willing to give back and isn't that what we all need in our lives? Someone willing to stand next to you and champion your dreams and help achieve shared goals. That is what Florida PAL Alumni do!

Our Young Folks Are Our Future

Wouldn't the future look rosy if all young people were shining like this? The Police Athletic League wants all children to have good futures and to be good citizens. That's always the goal and the vision.

And of course, we wish every success to Ileana Garcia, always part of the PAL family.