By Shayla Reaves

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Twin Cities father is sharing his story to stop others from repeating the cycle of domestic violence.

In January, Andre “Debonaire” McNeal lost his only daughter, Anaja Griffin McNeal, to domestic violence. The college freshman and 2020 Brooklyn Center High School graduate was 18 years old when she was killed while away at college out of state.

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“One minute I’m laughing and I’m feeling great. The next minute I’m crying uncontrollably,” Andre McNeal said. “The next minute I’m laughing, I’m thinking about her voice, her energy. She was such this amazing little giant. She was my Naji Bear. “

Andre McNeal (credit: CBS)

McNeal entered grief counseling to cope with the loss, but said he needed something more. An opportunity to teach anger management courses at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center followed. He accepted the role.

“My reasoning is that if somebody had gotten ahold to that man at some point and gave him some tools, taught him about emotional intelligence, my daughter would be in her second year at college,” he said. “We would be making plans for her to attend her dream school of Clark Atlanta University. I would still have visions and dreams of helping her buy her first house, her first baby, my grandchild, walking her down the aisle.”

For 20 weeks, McNeal educated men on how to improve their emotional health. Participants included Jason Appel. This was his fifth time taking an anger management course, the first with McNeal.

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“You get tired of negative outcomes from bad choices,” Appel said. “Rather than somebody just teaching from a book, they can teach about personal life experiences and share. Just knowing that somebody gets it. It empowered me to do better, to want to do better, just to be a nicer human being.”

McNeal entered therapy several years ago and started to unpack traumatic life experiences for the first time.

“I didn’t know that I had trauma until I went to marriage counseling some years ago, through my first marriage, and I started unleashing all these things that I had been through,” McNeal said. “I was probably about 9 years old when I saw my first murder right in front of me. “

Now he’s providing encouragement to men like Appel. So far, nearly 20 men have graduated from his course. He stays in contact with graduates through a text message thread, men sharing their challenges and successes with each other.

“When you called and told me about the promotion, I was like, ‘See, what I tell you! Change that energy!’” McNeal said to Appel. “When one of them had asked me, ‘Why are you doing this, with what you’re going through?’ I said so no young man or any one of you in this room do what the young man did to my daughter. She is up there just opening up doors for her dad to do his work to help the people I serve.”

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If you are in an abusive relationship and stuck at home with a dangerous partner, call 911 or The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. All calls are free and confidential.

Shayla Reaves