Sunburst puts light back in troubled teens’ eyes: Sunburst Youth Academy is turning lives around
Sgt. 1st Class (CA) Timothy Edwards sets the tone right from the beginning. Even before new cadets arrive at Sunburst Youth ChalleNGe Academy, he lets them know he is not their friend.
“You will not run my program!” Edwards yelled to a group of prospective cadets at a “Roll Call” introductory session on Saturday morning April 25. Pacing in front of a bleacher full of high school students, Edwards’ passion was evident in his classic drill sergeant demeanor. “Do I look like the kind of person who argues with children?! All that drama, leave it at home, because I do not care.”
Always underlying his bark, however, was the true message he wanted to get across: “If you act right,” he told them, softening his tone, “I will give you the world.”
That promise may sound bombastic, but youths who have gone through Sunburst’s transformative program say Edwards speaks the truth.
“My life was going down the drain [when] I decided to join Sunburst,” Cadet Gabriella Perez told a group of youths at a June 1 anti-gang event. “I’m five months into this academy, and I can’t believe how much I’ve changed. … I have become a girl that can achieve anything.”
A unique bond
As an outsider stepping onto the Sunburst campus at Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos in June, it doesn’t take long to notice the change Perez spoke of.
The 193 cadets living there are dropouts and other youths whose behavioral and academic problems put them in jeopardy of not graduating. They have used alcohol and drugs and had run-ins with the law. But after a few months at Sunburst, they are more mature, respectful and hard-working than one would ever expect from students their age.
The relationship between sergeant and cadet has become one of mutual respect and affection by this stage of the program and both staff and student seem to enjoy every day together.
Even Edwards, the drill sergeant, who refuses to get involved on a personal level with incoming cadets, says that by the time they graduate, “We’re going to be so close, I’m going to have to hold back tears.”
A commitment to oneself
The process starts at Roll Call, a series of Saturday morning physical training and drill sessions, where students get a taste of military school life and decide if Sunburst is right for them. A parent can send their child to Roll Call, but Sunburst won’t accept any students into the full program unless they show they truly want to be part of it.
“Roll Call makes sure you’re mentally and physically prepared for Sunburst,” said Cenaida Morales, who completed the Sunburst program in December but comes back periodically to volunteer her time. “I realized after one Roll Call that I had to make a commitment and I wanted to change.”
The April 25 Roll Call ended at noon, and 20 minutes later, Morales accompanied about 25 of the 120 students to a theater on base to wait for their parents to arrive. The other students had already been picked up, but at 12:40, about 10 were still waiting. The last one’s ride showed up, after several stern phone calls from Sunburst cadre, at 1:27.
“A lot of the time, [the source of the student’s problem] is where they come from,” Edwards said. “If you have four kids, and they all need to come to Sunburst, there’s likely something wrong in the home.”
That’s why parenting classes are required for all cadets’ families, and a certificate of completion must be presented to the academy before relatives can attend any Family Day events.
A well-rounded experience
At Sunburst, youths get a clean slate and receive the mentoring they need to make a positive change. The program’s first tenet is academic excellence and cadets are expected to earn a year’s worth of high school credits in five-and-a-half months.
Sunburst is a community high school run by the California National Guard in partnership with the Orange County Department of Education (the teachers at Sunburst are typically civilians). Credits earned at Sunburst can be taken back to a student’s home school and applied toward graduation, or a cadet can earn a high school diploma — not just a GED credential — from Sunburst.
“The average incoming cadet has a grade point average around 0.3 to 0.5,” on a four-point scale, according to Sgt. James Thomas, a member of the Sunburst cadre. “But virtually every student when they leave here is earning a 3.5 to a 4.0. They start to learn that they have these capabilities and can be successful, and they just take off.”
A cadet’s day begins at 5:15 a.m. most days — once or twice a week it’s 4:30. Apart from an hour of free time, each day is fully scheduled with daily exercise, study and activities until lights out at 9 p.m. Cadets perform community service, receive hands-on vocational training and gain resume-building, interviewing and financial skills.
Perhaps most importantly, Sunburst builds character. Cadets are expected to maintain high moral and ethical standards and each cadet learns the qualities of a good leader, follower and team member, then has a chance to lead their fellow cadets.
Through a combination of classroom activities, group discussions and Sunburst’s structured living environment, students gain self-esteem and learn to regulate their emotions and employ conflict resolution strategies.
“I have learned discipline, integrity and courage,” Cadet Eric Cobarrubio told about 1,900 nine-to-13-year-olds at the June 1 anti-gang event, which was held at Angel Stadium through the Orange County Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership. “Sunburst has made me believe in myself and my ability to be successful in the tough world we live in.”
Gary Verge, who completed the Sunburst program in December, said it felt weird at first to live with people he didn’t know, especially in the barracks-style housing at Sunburst. But as the program went on, “we all came together as a family, as brothers and sisters.”
The shared experiences at Sunburst create friendships that will last a lifetime, he said. The cadets learn from each other’s struggles and understand each other’s challenges, and they grow into adults together.
And they credit the cadre and their teachers for their growth.
“Today when Gary saw the cadre, he got so excited,” Verge’s father, Gary Verge Sr. of the Los Angeles Police Department, said April 22 during another youth mentoring event at Angel Stadium. “When you’re in the military and you see your drill instructor, do you get excited? But these people changed his life.”
Gary Jr. said the cadre were “mean” early in the program, and they pushed the cadets as hard as they could. “But if you take the challenge, they get nicer … as you start doing the right thing.” By graduation, he said, the cadets grow to love the cadre and don’t want to leave.
Perhaps the greatest endorsements, though, come from cadets’ happy parents.
“The light came back in Gary’s eyes,” his father said. “And I went from being a very worried parent to a very proud parent.”
The article above by Brandon Honig was distributed through the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System.
Cadet Eric Cobarrubio of the California National Guard’s Sunburst Youth ChalleNGe Academy shares his story of struggle and redemption with 1,900 youths ages 9 to 13 during a June 1 anti-gang event at Angel Stadium. Photo by Brandon Honig.