News Column

Program's cadets look ahead to brighter futures

June 22, 2014

By Mary Stone, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho

June 22--PIERCE -- As classes wrapped up last week, the Tribune sat down with the six cadets who have been sharing their experiences at the Idaho Youth Challenge Academy each month since the inaugural session started there in January.

These are the final interviews at the academy in Pierce, but we'll check in with the cadets in the months ahead as they complete the last phase of the program, working with mentors in their hometowns.

Cadet Senior Airman Markus Baggett, 16, smiled broadly as he talked about graduation.

"I'm more than excited," Baggett said, "I don't even know how to explain it."

But looking forward to finishing the 22-week residential portion of the program doesn't mean he didn't like it.

"I've learned a lot, though," he said. "I've never really successfully completed something like this before. It's a big part of my life."

Baggett said the trouble he was in before coming to the academy could have meant up to five years in jail. Completing the program means he essentially has a fresh start.

Over the next 12 months, he'll focus on completing the final portion of the Youth Challenge program by working with a mentor in his hometown of Twin Falls.

Baggett met his mentor, a friend of his mother and grandmother, when he was in juvenile detention.

"We've constantly sent letters back and forth," he said of the man who will oversee his next steps. "He's just been there for me, more than most people."

Though he has a year to complete at Filer High School -- to which he said he has been readmitted after previously being expelled -- Baggett already is looking toward adulthood.

"The first thing I'm going to do is get a job and a car," he said. "Look at renting my own apartment until I can afford to buy a house. And then, go to college."

His goal is to become a zoologist.

"This is the first time in my whole entire life I can actually look forward to doing something that I know can be positive, instead of always wondering what will happen next or when I'll be in trouble next," he said. "It's like starting over."

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Graduating from the academy is the equivalent of graduating from high school for Cadet Senior Airman Mikayla Whitten, 17, of Kuna.

"As of Saturday, I have a diploma," Whitten said.

Having passed that milestone, she isn't spending any time wondering what to do next.

Whitten was scheduled to leave early this morning for four weeks of music camp at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. The day after camp ends, she'll travel to Seattle for surgery to repair a knee injury that happened while snowshoeing this past winter.

After a few weeks of recovery, she'll set out for college at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where she has received scholarships to study music and premedicine. School starts Aug. 11.

Whitten said she will stay in touch with her mentor, her high school counselor, primarily via Skype from San Antonio.

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Cadet Senior Airman Anita Hernandez, 16, got a taste of life after the academy when she went home for a weekend last month.

"It was kind of weird not waking up to hearing 'reveille, reveille' every morning," Hernandez said.

She'll lose the built-in routine of life at the academy when she graduates, but she has plans in place to keep her busy for the summer.

"I am going to volunteer with my mom," she said. "She works with hospice."

Hernandez's mentor is a co-worker of her mother's.

"She used to tell me stories when I'd go to my mom's work after school," Hernandez said. "I'm really excited because I went to her house over home pass and she has so many projects ready for us to do."

When school starts in the fall, she plans to switch from Vallivue High School to Homedale High School, where she'll be a senior.

Hernandez's goal after high school is to attend college for a year, then possibly enlist in the military.

For now, her task will be adjusting to post-academy life.

"I want to go home," she said. "But then I don't, because I'm going to miss it so much."

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In January, Shelby Loftus, 17, explained she had applied to the Youth Challenge Academy after falling behind in school and getting into trouble with drugs.

Now, Cadet Airman 1st Class Loftus said she's ready to take on her senior year at Butte County High School in Arco. After high school, she hopes to attend the Paul Mitchell cosmetology school in Rexburg.

In the meantime, she has two summer jobs lined up, at drive-in restaurants. And she is looking forward to horseback riding and shopping with her mentor, a longtime family friend who baby-sat her when she was younger.

As one of three cadets chosen to speak at Saturday's graduation, Loftus planned to share a quote from a poster in the English teacher's classroom at the academy: "We are what we repeatedly do; therefore excellence is not an act but a habit."

The habits she and her fellow cadets learned at the academy were transformative, she said.

"We kind of all have a different outlook on life now," she said. "Like we can do more than we thought we could."

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When he came to the academy, it had been a couple years since Cadet Airman Dennis Coffey, 16, had attended school. But now that he's finished the program here, he hopes to enroll in high school in the fall.

"I'm gonna try and get a high school diploma, but if that doesn't work out I'll switch back to a GED," Coffey said.

He will live with an aunt in Plummer, where he plans to attend Lakeside High School.

His mentor coaches basketball at the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's wellness center in Plummer, where Coffey plans to work as a lifeguard this summer.

More than academics, he said, the coping skills he learned during his 22 weeks at the academy will help him going forward.

"You learn how to control your emotions pretty fast here, because you'll meet kids here that you don't like or that you just grind with, and you have to basically learn how to tolerate them," he said.

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Cadet Airman 1st Class Kyle Krezman, 17, surprised former classmates and teachers with his altered appearance (he lost about 60 pounds at the academy) and new attitude when he visited his high school in Bonners Ferry last month.

Krezman said he told students there about the Youth Challenge program and encouraged them to consider enrolling.

"It was a life-changing experience," he said of his time in Pierce.

Krezman's new life started this weekend with graduation from the academy and a job washing dishes at a Bonners Ferry restaurant.

He's hoping to attend summer school to make up the last few credits he'll need to be a senior at Bonners Ferry High School in the fall.

"I'm gonna be buckled down with school and work," he said.

Life won't be all nose-to-the-grindstone, though.

While he was at the academy straightening out his life, Krezman's family and friends were working on a reward for him.

The humble Dodge Neon he bought for about $800 before leaving for Pierce has been transformed with work and financing from his parents, grandparents, best friend and best friend's dad.

"It got done last weekend," Krezman said. "It's painted, my body kit's on, my turbo kit's in, my sound system's in. Everything. It's pristine."

His family sent a color book of paint chips so he could choose the finish -- metallic orange with a black hood.

"I can't wait," he said.

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Stone may be contacted at mstone@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2244. Follow her on Twitter @MarysSchoolNews.

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(c)2014 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

Visit the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho) at www.lmtribune.com

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Source: Lewiston Morning Tribune (ID)


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