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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, December 19, 2004

110 cadets make best of 2nd chance

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Babies cried, the band played "Pomp and Circumstance," and friends and relatives screamed out "We love you!" messages of cheer as their favorite graduate appeared in the processional.

Cadets of the 2004 Hawai'i National Guard Youth Challenge Academy waited backstage at the Pearl City High School Auditorium for yesterday's graduation ceremony to begin. The academy offers 16- to 18-year-old students who are at risk of dropping out of school a second chance to earn high-school diplomas. The program has been recognized as among the best of its kind nationwide.

Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

It all seemed like your typical joyous graduation ceremony at the Pearl City High School Auditorium. But for just about everyone at yesterday's Hawai'i National Guard Youth Challenge Academy's 10th anniversary commencement — graduates and spectators alike — the Class 21 exercise was something out of the ordinary.

Each of the 110 cadets who crossed the stage to shake hands with Gov. Linda Lingle and academy director Wallace Mitsui and to pick up a high-school diploma, had been given a second chance.

Each graduating cadet had spent 5 1/2 months as a resident member of the academic and fitness program for high-school students at risk of dropping out. Located at the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station, the program was recognized by the United Service Organizations as the best of its kind in the nation in 2001.

The result in many cases is a more than a minor miracle. Dead end 16-to-18-year-old kids destined to hard lives and almost no hope are transformed into shining examples of model behavior.

Whether the cadets remember the lessons learned is what those who spoke at the ceremony emphasized.

Lingle told the cadets that as young adults they had achieved something many adults never acquire.

"And that is self-discipline," she said. "Believe me, for a successful life, discipline has to be a foundation."

As they go through life she advised them not to be influenced by those who would tempt them to lead a less disciplined life.

Former academy graduate Christopher Kula, who spoke at the ceremony, warned that the biggest challenge the cadets face would be to avoid their previous behavior patterns. It happened to him, he said, after his own graduation in 1997.

But he regained his confidence, joined the military, became a certified intelligence interrogator for the Army, and served in missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Today Kula is the systems administrator for Sacred Hearts Academy. After he returned to Hawai'i he said he tried to locate four of his closest friends who had also graduated from Youth Challenge Academy. He learned that three had died and one was in prison.

"Do not ever sell yourself short," Kula told them. "You have worked and struggled and earned your second chance. It doesn't matter what you have done in your past.

"I am extremely proud, whenever anybody asks me where I went to high school, to tell them that I graduated from the Youth Challenge Program."

Following the ceremonies, the cadets lined up at attention and then passed single file by instructor 1st Sgt. George Hunkin, who looked stern but could not hide his pride in what he saw.

"Stay out of trouble," he told each graduate, as he slapped them on the backs and gave them a bear hug. "Well done ... Go follow your dream."

"Are you going to sign my book?" former Marine drill instructor, Master Sgt. Kenneth Rhodes of Queens, N.Y., asked cadet Alexa Kaufman, 16, of King Kekaulike High School on Maui. "I'm collecting as many names as I can get."

"Yes sir," said Kaufman, who gladly signed his book and later had nothing but praise for her former instructor.

"He's one of the best sergeants we have," she said with a broad smile. "I remember everything he taught me. He's just the best. I'll never forget him."

Rhodes, who has become used to dealing with tough customers over the years, said the job is basically the same as what he did in the Marines — turning young upstarts into men and women.

But like Hunkin, Rhodes said the most fulfilling part comes with building a sense of confidence in the students and showing them they have what it takes to stand on their own feet.

One such student was Roblynn Batad, 18, of Waipahu.

Batad received the highest honor of the day, the Governor's Distinguished Graduate Award for excellence in fitness, leadership and academic achievement. She said she had no idea she would be so highly honored. She also said a year ago the idea of receiving such an award would have been unfathomable.

Batad said having a second chance had made a dramatic and positive change in her life. Were it not for the Youth Challenge Academy, she said she most likely would have turned to drugs. She's convinced she'll continue to do well now that she has confidence.

Part of Batad's new found sense of responsibility includes being a role model.

"It's just like motivation for other young teenagers like me, because my family was really negative," said Batad, who weighs 95 pounds and stands 4 feet, 11 inches. "Nobody believed I could do it. But, now they're all proud of me. I showed them I could do it. You have to be strong. And this is where it starts."

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.