Dr. Lucille O’Neal–educator, author and mother of retired NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal–was the featured speaker last Wednesday at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy’s (CGLA) 14th Annual Odyssey Awards Luncheon.
Each year, CGLA presents the Odyssey Awards Luncheon to recognize exemplary CGLA students and celebrate CGLA’s distinctive accomplishments.
Dr. O’Neal–candidly, and often humorously–shared her life story, and discussed overcoming hardships and pursuing dreams with the audience at the Chattanooga Convention Center ballroom.
Dr. O’Neal said that at the age of 12, she told God that she wanted to be a motivational speaker. A tall, skinny child, she said she always felt different–a feeling that caused her to have low self-esteem throughout her youth. She shared that she eventually learned to drown those feelings with alcohol.
After becoming a mother at the age of 17, as soon as she finished high school in 1972–and eventually a wife and mother of three more children–Dr. O’Neal was married for 28 years, never letting go of her dream.
“I was fresh out of high school,” she recalled of her teen pregnancy. “I didn’t know what my future held. Even after learning what my mother taught me–keep dreaming, keep striving, keep going forward–I got caught up looking for love in all the wrong places.”
Dr. O’Neal said that when her son Shaquille was first drafted into the NBA by the Orlando Magic in 1992, she was struggling with alcoholism.
“I was not in a good place,” she said. “And I used his money to buy the best liquor that we could buy. I was drinking liquor that I couldn’t even pronounce. But eventually, I learned how to pronounce ‘Courvoisier.'”
It was her faith that pulled her out of her dark place, Dr. O’Neal said.
“It came to me that I needed to be doing something else,” she said. “In my mind, I could hear, ‘Walk like you have somewhere to go.’ I heard it clearly.”
Dr. O’Neal enrolled in an adult education program at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and graduated in 2003 with a degree in business administration.
“My son said, ‘If you go to college and you keep your grades up, I promise I’ll pay your tuition’,” she joked.
Following graduation at Bethune-Cookman, she, her son and daughter attended the University of Phoenix. Dr. O’Neal received her Master of Arts in organizational management in 2005.
“When you come together as a family and work together, the dreams that you have, even if they die, they can be resurrected,” Dr. O’Neal said.
Stacy Lightfoot, vice chancellor of diversity and engagement at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, announced CGLA’s Rising Star and Shining Star awards.
Four students received awards for displaying exceptional leadership and academics: First place, Rising Star Award: Devine Tate, seventh grade; Second place, Rising Star Award: Amy Morales Morales, seventh grade; First place, Shining Star Award: Amaya Dieng, 10th grade and Second place, Shining Star Award: Shaire Mendoza Izara, 11th grade.
“Odyssey is a time when we spotlight outstanding students–young women who are conscientious and disciplined, creative and insightful, eager and curious,” said Dr. Elaine Swafford, chief executive officer at CGLA.
The event featured a performance of “This Little Light of Mine” by Trinidadian-American singer Wintley Phipps and the academy choir. Phipps is a world-renowned vocal artist, pastor, motivational speaker and education activist.
Nicole Brown served as master of ceremonies for the awards luncheon. The Rev. Ann Weeks delivered the invocation. Hilda Murray and Jay Bock served as co-chairwomen.
Money raised from Odyssey supports CGLA’s mission “to provide girls and young women with a rigorous college preparatory education focused on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM) in a supportive environment that nurtures self-confidence, inspires leadership, encourages critical thinking, and promotes academic excellence.”
The Chattanooga News Chronicle was the 2023 featured media sponsor for the 14th Annual Odyssey Awards Luncheon. CGLA, 1802 Bailey Ave., is a public charter school for girls in grades 6-12.