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Home : News : Article View
NEWS | Aug. 30, 2011

Teenagers face challenges at California National Guard's Grizzly Youth Academy

By Army Spc. Edward Siguenza California National Guard

CAMP SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - There's no hospital for miles. No resident surgeons either. But what is here are ropes, canteens, books and plenty of attitude. These are more than enough to make this out-of-the-way campus of the California National Guard a unique place that saves lives.

Here at the Grizzly Youth Academy, miracles happen. It's here where Army and Air Force cadre convert a troubled teenager into a respectable young adult. It's where 16 to 18-year-olds reclaim life's values, previously lost in the jungle of growing up.

"These kids, they already recognize some issues that keep them from being successful. They just want some help," Maj. John C. Oberg, Grizzly director, said. "Where we're located, it takes them away from the distractions [preventing them from] being successful. Every student who wants help should take a look at this as an option."

More than 3,000 teenagers - Cadets upon entry - have graduated from the Grizzly program since its inception in August 1998. The National Guard Bureau initiated the National Guard Youth Challenge Program to respond to America's growing rate of high school dropouts. Five years later, the Golden State stepped forward to cater its own youth. And every year, for more than a decade, more than 300 Grizzly cadets graduate and become community assets. Class 27, with more than 160 teenagers, began July 2011.

The Grizzly mentors tough kids with tough prerequisites. A significant number of participants are dropouts or at risk of dropping out of high school. Some come with domestic problems. Others enter with legal issues.

"Thirty to 40 percent have conflicts with the law," Oberg said. "But this is really not just for kids who are struggling. We have some kids who are ready for college, but created their own problems."

The California National Guard's State Military Reserve comprises the majority of the Army and Air Force cadre. They give students a "quasi-military" program that focuses on these main areas: Leadership and follower-ship, community service, academic excellence, responsible citizenship, life coping skills, health and hygiene, job skills, and physical fitness.

A fully-chartered public high school, staffed with more than two dozen instructors, guides participants into earning high school diplomas or gaining enough credits to return to their original schools and graduate there. Paul Piette, principal, said about 75 percent of cadets who earned their diplomas through the Grizzly enroll in community colleges statewide.

"Our students succeed because the citizenry outside of [the Grizzly] embrace their efforts to change," Piette said. "[They] supply them with additional occupational opportunities."

There are five main California National Guard youth programs: California Cadet Corps, Oakland Military Institute, STARBASE (Science and Technology Academics Reinforcing Base Aviation and Space Exploration) and Sunburst Youth Academy. Sunburst, situated in Los Alamitos, Calif., began in 2007 and is a spin off from the Grizzly.

The Grizzly program is free for all participants. Teens are given a second chance to correct a wrong. They start on a two-week pre-challenge phase. Those who pass or elect to continue go through a five-month residential phase. Graduates are then activated into a 12-month post-residential phase, where voluntary sponsors monitor and mentor their performances.

"Twelve percent of graduates go into the military, but we're not a recruiting method to join the military," Oberg stressed. "Majority of students go back into the community."

Throughout the session there are incentives. Those performing well are presented perks. Last year, cadets earned a trip to Infineon Raceway Park in Sonoma, Calif. Some graduates may earn scholarships to higher academic institutes.

It takes roughly $20,000 to fund each participant, Oberg explained. Seventy-five percent is federally funded; the remaining 25 percent comes from state sources. Significant donations also come from private vendors.

Last year, Oberg explained, the Grizzly grew into a "multifaceted organization with an over $7.5 million budget." But the cost of running the program is much more beneficial than neglecting these troubled youth at any costs.

"Helping these kids to get a GED or high school diploma and get back on track far outweighs anything else," said Oberg.

"It's definitely worth the investment in our youth," added 1st Sgt. Fermin Barbosa, Grizzly commandant.

First and foremost, every cadet must come to terms with himself. They must admit the need for help. A Class 27 cadet named Taylor [last name withheld], a 16-year old northern California resident, said it was hard to admit she had personal flaws, but even harder to see her life slipping away. So she inquired about the Grizzly and is honored to participate.

"I wasn't just low on high school credits. I was being disrespectful to my family," Taylor said during the two-week pre-challenge. "I felt [my family] can't be telling me what to do. I joined this program to help with that.

"I just feel there will be something I can learn about myself. I made the right decision to be here. If I can stick through this, I know when I walk the [graduation] stage, it'll be my proudest moment."

Same goes for another northern California resident, Jose [last name withheld]. The 17-year-old "just had to change my gang-banging ways" and sought the Grizzly's help. He's currently a Class 27 cadet.

"I'm really tired of that life, and it's so hard to get out of it," Jose explained. "That life is just all colors and numbers. I saw a lot of friends get beat up. I told myself I don't want to see my own kids like that.

"Right now, this is everything to me. I just want to change."

There are medals, trophies and certificates gracing the Grizzly Youth Academy halls, garnered from more than a decade of successes. None were earned easily. But all are well deserved because here, they change lives.

Better yet ... they save lives.



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