When DeAaron Ross-Mays talks about his future, ​his words are confident but not boastful. His tone is determined, but not cocky.

The 18-year-old Michigan native has good reason to be self-assured.

He earned his high school diploma from Boys Town in 2014. After graduating, he joined Job Corps in Denison, Iowa, and enrolled in the Health Occupations program. He spent six months studying to become a pharmacy technician. Now, he’s in a transitional living program to secure his financial footing before taking his next step – enrolling in a pre-pharmacy program at a local community college.

The success and stability of DeAaron’s life today stand in stark contrast to the disappointment and volatility of his childhood.

Outside his family’s home in Muskegon, gang violence, street fights and broken families were woven into the fabric of their hard-luck neighborhood. The misfortune swirling around DeAaron eventually snared him.

“Growing up in my neighborhood was tough,” DeAaron explained. “There was so much negative stuff, and it’s not easy trying to be good and positive when you’re around a negative environment all the time.”

At 13, DeAaron found himself in juvenile detention facing an assault charge. The presiding judge offered him a chance to go to Boys Town in Nebraska. With mixed emotions, he agreed. 

“I had never been out of my home state and was nervous about going to a whole different environment. But I was excited because I wanted to change and accomplish things and thought this might help me,” DeAaron said.

When he arrived, he was impressed by Boys Town’s size and small-town setting. He was less impressed by the structure and restrictions of his Family Home.

“DeAaron wanted to do what DeAaron wanted to do when he wanted to do it,” said Heather Richter, who with her husband, Mark, served as the teen’s Family-Teachers®.

DeAaron was defiant and disorganized. He argued with the Richters… a lot. He wasn’t always truthful. He lacked appropriate boundaries with girls, and he made poor choices… a lot. He also suffered from anxiety and obsessive thinking, symptoms of his Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

DeAaron’s first years at Boys Town were a struggle for him and his Family-Teachers.

In time, however, DeAaron had a change of heart and attitude. Therapy helped DeAaron get a handle on his OCD, and the Richters taught him organizational strategies and coping skills to reduce his anxiety. He also became active in sports, excelling in football and earning a trip to the state wrestling tournament. He sang in the church choir, attended Bible study every week and prayed daily. He even discovered an unexpected interest – medicine.

When DeAaron noticed a friend sitting in the health sciences classroom, it piqued his curiosity. So he signed up for the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) class, too. It was a life-altering decision.

“At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. When I learned it was a two-hour class, I was like ‘Whoa…that’s a lot of coursework!’ But I started liking it and stuck with it. The class was one of the best things that happened to me,” DeAaron said.

He credits instructor Stevie Gass for guiding and motivating him to earn his CNA certification and sparking his desire to pursue a career in medicine. Stevie remembers DeAaron as one of the kindest students she ever taught.

“I will always remember his smile and perfect manners,” remarked Stevie. “When our class went to Remington Heights [a local retirement community] to host a Senior Citizens Prom, DeAaron made sure all the ladies had an opportunity to dance. He even learned how to dance the way they did in the 1940s.”

For a young man who once stood in shackles facing assault charges, it was quite the transformation. His judge back in Michigan was impressed, too, and expunged DeAaron’s juvenile record. The judge even came to Nebraska for his graduation.

As DeAaron readies himself for college, he is grateful for all of the instruction, assistance and opportunities Boys Town has provided.

“I liked Boys Town a lot,” DeAaron said. “I learned how to deal with adversity and adjust if things didn’t go a perfect way. I found my motivation, and I found myself.”