Pandemic results in missed opportunities for at-risk youth

Posted at 6:37 PM, Sep 21, 2020

Leaders of a program for at risk youth in Southern California are worried as the teens who need the most help may not be getting the opportunities they need because of the pandemic.

Student Leslie Damien has very specific aspirations.

“I want to be a doctor, actually -- I hope to be getting into autopsies,” Damien said.

But that wasn't the case two years ago when she was living an entirely different lifestyle.

“I was on probation for skipping school, for being absent all the time, for smoking and doing drugs. I was doing really bad during this time,” Damien said.

Damien said it was her probation officer who made her realize that her life was spiraling downward. The two sat down and had a heart-to-heart conversation.

“’Leslie, you are messing up your life,” Damien said, recalling her conversation. “’You have so much to look forward to, you can either go to Sunburst or mess up your life and you’re not going to get anywhere.”

She signed up and checked herself in for change.

“What made me want to make the change was seeing my grandmother cry,” Damien said. “I saw her cry she said she was disappointed and thought I was going to be something in the world and she though my life was going to go completely bad.”

“We take students who are struggling for whatever reason, drugs, alcohol family issues, bad relationships and we bring them into a safe environment built around the military model of structure and discipline and we get them away from all those distractions,” said Sgt. Ryan Salvoni, the admissions coordinator for Sunburst Youth Academy in Los Alamitos, California.

It's a quas-imilitary, residential youth program run by the National Guard and Orange County Department of Education.

“Sunburst is not a placement facility, it’s not a bootcamp for bad kids, parents can’t force their students to attend,” Salvoni said. It’s a scholarship that you have to apply for and earn. You have to have an actual desire for change and make a commitment to the process in order for our program to have significant change in their life.”

The program is free, and available to any teen in six Southern California counties. There are 40 similar programs like this one across the country. It’s 22 weeks long, and Salvoni says, there are typically more applicants than scholarships. There's no turning back. No quitting.

“We make it harder for a student to quit and go home than it is to get back in and continue through that moment of weakness,” Salvoni said. “We’re trying to develop that sense of resiliency when they’re with us so they can push through moments of wanting to quit or give up.”

Salvoni is worried about the kids he's not able to reach. Like every other aspect of our society, the pandemic has changed the way he does outreach.

“Any empty scholarship that goes unfulfilled is a lost opportunity for a student to change their life,” Salvoni said.

And that, Damien said, is something she's proof of.

“I would be probably on the streets, smoking weed, not graduating high school, doing the same things I was doing before, not in a good place, nowhere near where I am now,” Damien said.

After graduating, she became valedictorian, graduating with a 4.5 GPA, and is well on her way to become a doctor.

“It's an extraordinary opportunity for those students who don’t have a future or who think that there’s nothing that’s going to go on with their life it’s a huge opportunity to start your future to give you a second opportunity to be something great or be something in the world,” Damien said.

All that is required for applicants is an ID and be free of serious legal troubles.