The Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., where James Neal stayed and where he received his Yes I Can award, has been under 10 feet of water because of flooding. He and other recipients were there just a week before the storms on April 23.
James, 18, who is about to graduate from Arroyo Grande High School, won the award for academics and was one of only 27 students to win worldwide.
Another student from San Luis Obispo County, Olivia Shaw of Templeton, also won.
James was diagnosed under Autism spectrum with Asperger’s syndrome and began showing unusual behavior in his preschool years. His mother, April McGill, began taking him to various places such as the mental health department to get help with the aggressive behavior he displayed.
James went to live with his dad, Kenny Neal, at about age 5, and Neal became his primary caretaker. But it wasn’t until high school that James came into his own.
After a year at Nipomo High School, he moved to Arroyo Grande High in his sophomore year and began tutoring with special education teacher Brittney Keller. Soon James was able to take regular classes as well as be in the special education program.
“I have yet to witness a student make as much progress, both academically and socially, as James,” Keller said.
Keller recommended him for the Yes I Can award. “He’s worked hard to get to where he’s at today. He wanted to change and that’s why change was possible,” she added.
The Council for Exceptional Children honors students with disabilities each year who have excelled in one of several categories. It is an international community of educators who are the voice of special and gifted education.
James has passed the California High School Exit Examination and completed 20 hours of community service — both prerequisites for graduating and both deemed nearly impossible for him to accomplish when he started high school.
James had a mental break at about age 5. Neal considers that James’ DPT shot may have had a causative effect, among other possibilities.
Focusing is difficult for James. “Out of sight, out of mind,” his father said. Neal works with James at home giving him chores, such as taking out the trash and recycling, pulling weeds and doing his own laundry.
James likes taking ceramics classes at Arroyo Grande High and has made “a beautiful bowl on the potter’s wheel,” his mother said.
“He’s an artist,” she added. And he draws superheroes. His dad mentioned a clay tile of the American flag.
In 2003, James won a prize for kids with developmental disabilities for drawing Marvin the Martian.
McGill and Neal, after separating when James was very small, have worked well together through the years “for Jimmy,” their only child.
James was very excited about Nashville. Elks Lodge No. 322 donated $400 to him, which he chose to use to pay for his mom’s airfare so she could attend the award ceremony.
The Lucia Mar Unified School District honored James for winning the Yes I Can Award at the school board meeting May 4.
When James isn’t in school or doing his chores, he likes to watch TV-Land classics as well as videos on YouTube. He especially likes Star Trek — because of the human story behind it, he says.
At 6-feet-2-inches tall, James is on the brink of adulthood. He has made great strides in his life and plans to spend the next year with the Department of Rehabilitation, learning work and social skills.
He may go on to Cuesta College or another school, perhaps to obtain computer skills or study culinary arts.
“I call him ‘Star’ after Nashville,” said his mother. “He was so proud of himself up on stage.”
The South County Beat appears every other week. Anyone with story ideas involving interesting people in the South County can reach Gayle Cuddy at 489-1026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.