Troubled teens' transformation moves parents to tears

This is the sixth in a series of reports on the Youth Challenge Academy program and the cadets trying to turn their lives around. CBS News will follow their progress, giving frequent updates through December. The first segment: National Guard program puts dropouts on a new track ; second: From high school dropouts to cadets; third: Tears and hugs for once-troubled teens at National Guard camp ; fourth: Troubled teens in National Guard camp face toughest challenge yet ; and fifth: Sergeants' tough love helps to reform troubled teens


LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. -- When we first met Angel Kay LeMaster in July, she was a scrawny, undisciplined, high school dropout looking to escape a tough past that included tales of homelessness with her mother. The two slept in cars, freeways, and in hotels, she told me.

"I didn't come here for my mom or dad"

But look at her now -- she's a leader of her Platoon.

"I needed to know that I could push myself," she said.

"And what have you been rewarded with as a result of pushing yourself?" I asked.

"I have been rewarded with pride, I am so proud of myself for what I've accomplished."

The rigid military style structure these cadets receive is just one part of this program. Sunburst is a fully accredited high school.

"I'm a 4.0 GPA, straight-A student," LeMaster said.

The cadets attend classes eight hours a day, have mandatory study sessions and access to tutors. The one big difference here: they don't have to worry about basic needs.

Principal Karen Hudgins says the academy provides food and clothing for the cadets.

"Instead of thinking 'can't do' they start thinking about 'can do,'" Hudgins said. "It's amazing what kids can do when they have this sense of competence and I think that is what this program, both the academic and military side, does for these kids."

At a recent report card day the parents of these high school drop-outs who were used to seeing D's and F's were overwhelmed by the sight of A's and B's.

"Are you kidding me!" said a stunned parent.

"That says outstanding!" said another, while wiping away tears of joy.


The transformation begins immediately, according to Sergeant Rochelle Sonza, a counselor to these troubled teens. Sonza says the last few weeks before graduation are when doubt seeps in.

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Sergeant Rochelle Sonza speaks to Michelle Miller CBS News

"A lot of these kids have never accomplished anything in their lives," she told me. " A victory to them is scary because they don't know what it feels like and how it should feel like. So they are fighting it because they don't want to go back to that environment where they were once at. Letting go is really hard for a lot of of them."

Cadet Adjekai Stewart finds it hard not to doubt herself.

"I want to be able to fail and feel okay"

"I'm pretty scared to leave," she told me. "I don't think I am strong enough to leave. I don't have that I can do mentality. If someone has told you something for so long it's pretty hard to try and break the chain, so I have to take it day by day."

It's truly been a physically and mentally taxing experience for these cadets, but they've come quite a long way.


This series will conclude later this week with a look at the graduation ceremony at Sunburst Challenge Academy.
  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." As an award-winning correspondent based in New York, she has reported for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She joined CBS News in 2004.