Akelia Austin is a young woman with big dreams, and the ambitious, optimistic 18-year-old graduate of Pine Bluff High School is determined to fulfill those dreams by any means necessary.
In fact, Austin recently realized one of her dreams when she was sworn into the United States Army Reserve.
Several of Austin’s relatives—including her her father—were in the military. Watching their example, she aspired to continue the family’s military tradition, completely unaware of the price she would ultimately pay to do so.
In preschool, Austin was diagnosed with exotropia, a visual condition in which the eyes don’t focus on the same object, but she said she never thought much about it.
“I was never self-conscious or anything,” Austin said. “It never bothered me before, until I was disqualified to enlist in the Army.”
Faced with the difficult decision of whether to have surgery to correct her vision, Austin carefully weighed her options.
“What made it hard is knowing that even if I did the surgery, I still might not get accepted,” she said.
With the support of her recruiter, who Austin said had been a great mentor and friend throughout the ordeal, Austin decided to go forward with the surgery, followed by a sixth-month recovery period and another wait of approximately three months before being medically cleared to enlist.
During the waiting period, Austin said she relied on the strength given her by God to persevere.
“To say God is really, really good is an understatement,” she said. “At times, I would think about my peers and how they were moving ahead and doing things … it was hard … but I stayed motivated knowing that no matter what, I could push through it.”
Even though Austin could have taken another route, going straight to college, an expense that she said was already paid, she believes she had made the right decision.
Sgt. T. L. Bonds, Austin’s recruiter, said he is inspired by what he sees in Austin.
“She is pretty driven,” Bonds said. “She started this pursuit and pursued it to the end. But for somebody to undergo eye surgery, that’s a big deal. It shows just how determined she is.”
But Austin’s determination does not stop with her aspirations to follow her father’s footsteps. A self-proclaimed “daddy’s girl,” Austin lost her father when he passed away when she was only 12 years old, leaving a void.
Choosing her words carefully, she said that life after his death, “wasn’t the best situation. I lost the guidance I needed when I needed it most.”
Her lack of stability during her teen years ignited a passion for other teens with similar struggles.
“That’s my biggest goal in life, to impact young people,” Austin said.
Part of that goal was fulfilled when Austin and a few of her friends brainstormed an idea to create “a safe place for teens to have healthy dialogue without being judged.” In answer to that need, the group successfully launched God Chasers in her home church, Bethany Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. The program, which started a year ago with two attendees, now has 40 to 50 teenagers in its bimonthly meetings.
Senator M. Brunson Jr., Austin’s godfather, recognizes her zeal and proactive approach.
“She is fully engaged, and a recognized youth leader over the God Chasers’ ministry,” he said.
But he added: “Her activities are not limited to church. She is involved in community endeavors as well.”
In 2013, Austin was among those selected in the Mayor for the Day program where participants got the opportunity to shadow Pine Buff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, sit in on department head and task force meetings, give their input and ask questions.
She has also been involved with the Pine Bluff Police Explorers, a career development program in partnership with Boy Scouts of America, which allows young men and women a firsthand experience with law enforcement.
Through the Explorers program, Austin did a police ride-along, coached basketball camp and participated in more than 400 hours of community service.
But even now, her vast positive experiences are mingled with personal pain. One of Austin’s five brothers was the victim of a homicide in April.
“He let the environment around him influence him,” Austin said.
Still, she maintains: “You don’t have to let your circumstances determine who you are in life.”
After Austin finishes basic training for the Army Reserve, she will be leaving Pine Bluff to attend Southeastern Bible College in Birmingham, Alabama in preparation for fulfilling yet another goal. Austin wants to come back to Pine Bluff to work with at-risk youth.
She plans to start a mentorship/training program for young men, and a youth center for an age group she feels has fallen through the cracks.
“Most centers are for youth up to the age of 12, Austin said. She envisions a program that will serve young people ranging from teen through young adulthood.
“That is a critical age … an age when guidance is most important,” she said as she reflected on her own experience.
Brunson, for one, has no doubt Austin will reach all her goals.
“She has remained true to the course she has plotted for herself. … As she gets ready to embrace the next phase of her life, there is truly an entire village wishing her Godspeed.”