LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. – October 1, 2015 – After 70 days at Sunburst Youth ChalleNGe Academy, some cadets have changed so much, they barely understand the choices they once made.
“When you have to stand at a position of attention for so long, you have time to think,” Cadet Asia King said Sept. 19 at Joint Forces Training Base (JFTB) Los Alamitos in Orange County. “It makes you think like, ‘Dang. Really? I did that? What was I thinking?’”
King, 16, was having disciplinary issues and falling behind at Cleveland High School in Reseda before she entered Sunburst. Her Auntie Sandra King, who has raised Asia since she was 5 days old, said Asia needed structure and someone to be in her face.
“She was going somewhere that she knows was pretty bad,” Sandra said. “I can tell she has changed. She’s talking more, she’s more open, a little more disciplined. I’m so proud of her. I’m glad that we made this step for her.”
Asia and Sandra had just been reunited at Family Day, their first face-to-face interaction since Asia entered the residential, military-style school for dropouts and at-risk teens run by the California National Guard. The academy’s four platoons wowed their families with drill routines then enjoyed a meal and a few hours in the JFTB sun with their loved ones.
Asia has three more months at Sunburst before returning to Cleveland High to complete her degree. The curriculum at Sunburst is difficult, Asia said, but she’s getting all A’s because the teachers and cadre are always there to help and to make sure students don’t fall behind. She’s confident she’ll keep her grades up when she leaves Sunburst, because the cadre taught her how to manage her time.
“Here you’re constantly busy and … you want to write letters home. So whenever you have free time, you want to do your homework, because you know you need to balance your time,” she said. “So when you’re out there (at a different school), and you want to get on your phone, you’ll know to do your homework first.”
There was no schoolwork the first two weeks at Sunburst. That’s the pre-challenge phase, when the cadre push you to the limit and “break you,” Asia said, then build you back up.
“The cadre are strict when you first meet them, and the first two weeks are tough. You’re like, ‘Oh, I hate them,’” said Cadet Jazzmine Jackson, 16, who has four classes to complete at Gardena High before applying to college and pursuing a career as an obstetrician/gynecologist. “But then when you start to get to know them, it’s OK, because (you see) they really care.”
The cadets come into Sunburst with a lot of different issues, Jackson said, and the cadre need to get them in line. They don’t allow any socializing during those first two weeks, every waking moment is accounted for, and physical exercise is used as punishment for any infraction.
“(The cadre) put on that front like they’re really serious and there’s no jokes, because you came here for a reason and they’ve got to hold that standard,” Jackson said. “But they’re caring and loving, and (at this point in the program) everybody loves them.”
Parents at Family Day said they immediately noticed their kids had greater confidence than when they entered the program. Aracely Torres said her 17-year-old son, Ivan, used to mumble when he spoke, but now he’s clear, outspoken and unafraid to share his thoughts.
“The qualities and the potential that I knew were there, you can see it now,” she said. “I’ve always told him that he was meant to do great things, and he needed just a little bit more motivation. … I knew he had it in there, and I’m just amazed.”
The staff at Sunburst know there’s a good kid underneath every troubled cadet who enters the program. Misbehavior or lack of motivation in school is often a response to the student’s home life, where a wide range of issues could influence a child negatively.
Every parent whose child enters Sunburst is therefore required to attend parenting classes – and any parent who had not completed a parenting course before Family Day was excluded from attending. Aracely Torres, for one, is taking her role in her son’s growth very seriously.
“I told him, ‘Whatever you’re doing in here, as hard as you’re working in here, I’m doing the same out there,’” she said on Family Day. “It starts in the home, so I know that him coming here was not all (his fault). As a parent you need to take accountability for everything, and I take my share of accountability for maybe the mistakes, maybe the errors, maybe the bad parenting, whatever it was.
“So I told him, ‘I’m not leaving you (here) and I’m not forgetting about you. I’m going to work on making it better for when you come home.”
Ivan said he used to talk back to his mom and even almost got physical with her once, and now he regrets his actions. On Family Day, he felt nothing but love and appreciation for her and said Sunburst had taught him a great deal about life.
“You learn to appreciate the things in life. You learn to love everything because you don’t take things for granted here,” he said. “Everything here is a privilege, so I find life a privilege because (of it).”
Sergio Rivera, 16, said he also has become more grateful for the things he has in life, and he’s looking forward to spending more time with his family after Sunburst and cherishing each moment. Sergio and his mom have written each other nearly every day since Sunburst started in July, and he’s glad to show her the person he has become.
“I felt like I was doing the wrong thing (before Sunburst), and I was trying to find a way to make her proud, but I’d always fail and not do the right thing in school,” he said. “I felt like I disappointed her. Now I believe that I can make her proud.”