Neil Issa was born on April 24, 1989, in Liberia. When he was just two days old, he and his family fled the country after a civil war broke out.
His mom, who worked as a news reporter, was targeted by rebel forces who sought to assassinate anyone who worked in journalism. The family sought refuge in Mali for two years, then moved to Egypt two years later. When Issa was 4, they left for Ivory Coast, where they lived for four years. As Issa describes it, life was about just trying to survive. 

They eventually left Africa altogether and moved to Des Moines, Iowa. Issa graduated from East High School and took his talents as an outside linebacker to Ellsworth Community College on a football scholarship before transferring to Southwest Baptist University and then Grand View University.

He now works as the unit director of the Bernie and Berniece Baker Boys and Girls Club, walking the very same halls of his former middle school, Hiatt Middle School, helping underserved youths overcome barriers in their lives, much like the way his own mentors helped him when he was young. 

What were some differences you noticed in coming to Des Moines from Africa? 

The biggest change I would say was just waking up to no gunshots and no fear for your safety. The biggest thing we need as humans is safety, and that was the No. 1 thing we found here. We were able to walk outside without getting killed. It was a big change for us. People were happy, we were able to own our own vehicle. The smallest things were huge to us. I love how nice people are and how slow the pace is. You can control your own destiny. 

Describe your path coming to the Boys and Girls Club. 

I started at Enterprise Rent-A-Car and did the management training program. I loved it because it taught me how to work with people and how to run an organization in the back end as well as the front end. I did that for about 2½ years. Turns out I didn’t find any passion or purpose in that role. I wanted to do more. When I went home I didn’t feel accomplished at all, I felt there was something more I needed to give back. I decided to go into working for the Boys and Girls Club, and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done so far. I’m really excited about what I do. 

What are your responsibilities as unit director?

I oversee staff that run programs for us and run the back end of the club sites. I make sure rules are being followed. I have 10 staff members, one of which is full time and the rest are part time during the school year and full time during the summer. 

What does a typical day look like for you? 

I get to [my office at Hiatt Middle School] and I have about four hours to plan for the day. [After school] the kids go to the cafeteria and we feed them snacks before we start our programming. Obviously kids don’t want to leave school and then go back to school, so we try to make games out of learning. Then they go to the gym until 5 p.m. and we feed them dinner and we pretty much hang out until they get picked up. 

What are some of your goals?

I want my kids to grow up and understand that if I can make it out of the situation I was in, they can be great people, too. I want kids to understand that people that look like them can go outside of what people understand them to be. I want them to change the outlook of their path. Growing up in Iowa, my teachers, all of the people I respected never looked like me. I want my kids to know that I’m not going to let them down. That’s what drives me because it’s not just about me right now. 

How do you use your own story to help others? 

I’m an open book. I want people to understand that it was not cake for me. It was hard learning; basically coming here at 8 years old, I had to teach myself how to read and write. Those are things that were necessities to becoming successful, and these kids who were born here were already a step ahead of the game.

Why do you do what you do?

I do what I do because I have two boys at home that I want to be proud of me. I want them to know that their dad went above and beyond, and not just for myself. It’s about my kids walking down the street with the same last name as me and somebody running up to them saying, “Oh your last name is Issa? I know your dad! He did [blank] for me.” That’s how I want to be remembered. 

How do you identify yourself? 

From the outside, I would say I identify to others as a black American. But inside I identify myself as an African American. I take pride in where I’m from, and that’s a big thing for me. I want people to know that I’m from Africa. 

How do you want others to see you?

Not described as a color. I want to be described as a positive individual. I just want to be considered as this guy that is great for the community. I hate being in a box. On job applications I put “other” because I don’t want to be considered as whatever people see me as. I’m a fun person and I’m looking for change. I am in the community for a reason and I want these kids to come up and run our communities, too. I want the future to be bright rather than what it has been for people like me in the past.