Grizzly Youth Academy Graduation

On a sunny Friday morning in a Cal Poly parking lot, families from across California gathered to watch 164 Grizzly Youth Academy cadets at the culmination of an intensive program intended to change their lives.

As the uniformed cadets marched proudly in military-style unison, chanting with heads high, it was hard to imagine that six months ago these same youths were at risk of or had already dropped out of high school — some with histories of drug or alcohol abuse or brushes with the law.

In a ceremony that followed at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly, about 55 students were presented with high school diplomas. An additional 10 earned GEDs, six achieved high school proficiency, and the rest will carry 55 high school credits home with them.

In 22 weeks of residency at Camp San Luis Obispo, each has performed more than 40 hours of community service locally, created an action plan for continuing education or work and developed a relationship with a trained mentor who will check in monthly in the year to come.

Parent David Raya Sr. said he has already noticed the changes in his son.

“I’m glad to have my kid back,” he said. “He thinks a lot clearer now.”

After earning four A’s and a B-plus in his classes, David Raya Jr. agreed.

“I’m free of drugs. This experience has given me hope. Before, I was a person who had no hope.” He now plans to join the military.

How can five months change a student so profoundly? Raya Jr. attributed his newfound “clarity” to the cadre of more than 40 counselors, teachers and military staffers who really cared and were there for him 24/7.

Raya once told his mentor, Army Spc. Jon Nicholson, that he “used to start things and not finish them,” according to Nicholson.

And considering that the 164 graduates began as a group of 220 — just to finish is a success.

Lead counselor Terry Greene said this is the largest class she has ever seen graduate since the program started in 1998.

Because it is a voluntary program, some cadets choose to leave. Others cannot maintain disciplinary standards. Greene said that some students are “couch potatoes, used to videogaming,” and that the academy will test their physical limits.

Cadets attend classes from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays, followed by life coping skills or anger management classes, counseling, physical training and a study hall.

In 2006, the Grizzly Youth Academy was chosen by the National Guard as the best all-around Youth ChalleNGe Program in the nation among more than 30 schools of its type. It is a collaboration between the county Office of Education and the California National Guard, and it serves students from Ventura County to the northern state line.

Recruiting mentor Suzy Elwell said the program operates with 25 percent state and 75 percent federal funds, and there are no fees for students to attend.