GREENFIELD — As Yazmiene Myers crossed the stage in her cap and gown, a shout of excitement rang out in the quiet auditorium at Greenfield-Central High School.
Her grandmother, Melody Holt-Respass, had tears of joy in her eyes and the widest grin across her face as she cheered unabashedly for the 17-year-old, who Holt-Respass admitted had a tough time finding her way to graduation day.
Myers was one of nearly 70 teens recognized Saturday for completing the Hoosier Youth ChalleNGe Academy, an alternative education institute for at-risk youth operated by the Indiana National Guard and based in Knightstown. Hundreds of families from across the state flocked to Greenfield for the ceremony celebrating the academy’s 16th graduating class.
The youth program was founded in 1993 and has since served 90,000 teens. Through military-style discipline, the academy seeks to turn cadets who pass through the program from troubled teens to respectful young adults focused on leadership, responsibility and service to their community.
Myers’ troubles began three years ago after her mother died. She went to live with her grandmother but started to fall in with the wrong crowd and stopped going to school, Holt-Respass said. The pair heard from a family friend about the Hoosier Youth ChalleNGe Academy, and Myers decided to leave her Hammond home to attend.
Now, the girl family members feared would never get a diploma is headed to college in September with plans to one day apply to the West Point military academy. Family members say she’s made them — and her mother — proud.
“I’m so excited for her,” Holt-Respass said. “There is nothing stopping her; she’s beyond the stars now.”
The academy was created for Hoosier 16- to 18-year-olds who have dropped out, been expelled or are deficient in high school credits, said 1st Sgt. Abbey Smith, an academy staff member. The teens voluntarily enroll in the academy and must be drug-free and have no felony charges or convictions.
Days at the academy are strictly structured, Smith said; cadets wake up at 6 a.m., take classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and complete military-style physical training each afternoon.
The tight schedule helps teens find a routine, Smith said. They carry those lessons with them once they leave the academy, and it helps them maintain a good track record once they are back home, she added.
“My hope is that they leave, recognizing their self-worth; that they take that new self-confidence and use it to make a positive impact in the world,” Smith said.
Following the graduation ceremony, families clogged the high school’s hallways. Many parents, including Lacoquette Wilson of Indianapolis, shed a few tears.
Wilson said “a long, hard struggle” brought her daughter, Dajah Wilson, to the youth academy, but the experiences the teen had in Knightstown are something she will never forget.
“It was hard, but it helped,” Dajah Wilson said. “You come out stronger, and you learn to show people respect.”
Many cadets shared those same feelings.
For Myers, the academy taught her to control her emotions and to keep calm in stressful situations.
Cameron Kelly, who was named the distinguished honor graduate by the academy’s leadership, delivered an address during the ceremony. In his speech, the Parker City native reminded his fellow graduates of the discipline the academy taught them and said they would not have developed these essential leadership skills without the support of their family, the academy’s leaders and the new friends they had made.
“We have proven to ourselves and our loved ones that we can accomplish something,” Kelly said.
Smith said she often hears cadets say the academy and its military background saved their lives. Although there is no military commitment, many cadets join the military because they know the structure will keep them out of trouble.
“These aren’t bad kids,” she said. “These are great kids who have made bad decisions.”