Students get another chance
By Caryn Kunz
Advertiser Staff Writer
Just two days after a speech by President Obama telling students that there's "no excuse for not trying" to get an education, 10 former high-risk students demonstrated their perseverance by collecting hard-earned high school diplomas in front of a crowd of tearful family and friends at McCoy Pavilion.
The graduates — former gang members, high school dropouts and drug addicts — spent January through September in the Adult Friends for Youth Clinical Competency Based High School Diploma Program (C-BASE), run through the Farrington Community School for Adults.
"AFY works with the highest-risk kids," said AFY president Deborah Spencer-Chun. "The kids that cannot function and have no other alternative but to leave school, we take them into our program. A lot of them see this as their last chance, an opportunity for them to move on."
While there are several C-BASE programs in the state, AFY's is the only one to incorporate clinical therapy into students' study of community resources, con-sumer economics, occupa-tional knowledge, govern-ment and law, and health, the group said.
"They (AFY staff) would just listen without judging me," said 18 year-old Dyger Degal, who spoke during commencement. "They told me, 'If you need anything, don't worry about the time. Just give us a call; we'll be there.' There was never a time when they said, 'No, not today.' They just said, 'I'm here for you.' I'm so thankful that they put me on a new path for a new beginning, a new life."
Degal dropped out of McKinley High School after joining a gang and experimenting with drugs. His family relationships suffered, particularly with his father, who nearly disowned him.
"At that time, my life was down," Degal said. "I didn't care about anything. I was disrespecting my family and my friends."
After hearing about AFY from a cousin who went through the program, Degal called Spencer-Chun and asked to try it out.
"Ever since that time, I've started respecting my family, caring about myself and about my future," said Degal, who has been drug-free for nine months. "I still got pressure outside, but I stood above it. I have a stronger mind now."
"The support system is unbelievable," said Kaeo Lealao, a graduate of AFY's first C-BASE class in 2002. After going on to graduate from college, Lealao was recently hired as an assistant teacher and program specialist with the program.
"Since I've been there and I know what they're experiencing, I can help them better," he said. "It's a priceless experience."
According to Spencer-Chun, nine of the 10 graduates plan to attend college. Degal, influenced by his father's love of cars, hopes to enter Honolulu Community College's automotive program.
"Nobody thought they could do it, not even themselves," Spencer-Chun said. "We had that hope and we believed in them, and once they realized that, there was no stopping them. My hope is that they always challenge themselves and see that any task is possible."