Tears and hugs for once-troubled teens at National Guard camp

This is the third 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, and second: From high school dropouts to cadets.


LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. - "And it won't be long ... and it won't be long ... 'til I get on back home."

It's Day 61 at Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy and for the girls of Panther Platoon and the other cadets here it will be a day like no other.

"The outside world is coming into our house today."

"Think about how far you've come and how hard you have worked," said Sergeant 1st Class Peter Gutierrez.

"Each and every one of you deserves a chance at life. You deserve a good education."

So their Drill Sergeants try to set the tone: "Today is the day that people will see you, as we see you."

Today is Family Day -- the first time these cadets will see their families in ten weeks.

"My heart is going a thousand miles per hour, I'm so excited" said Cadet Francisco Lazo's mother.

In July, these parents dropped off rebellious, disrespectful, high school dropouts who lost their way. But today these teens get to show just how much they've changed.

"That's my baby," said the mother of Angel Kay LeMaster.

"Crista! Crista!"

Crista Hopkin's father Cris, beamed with pride.

Asked what he sees, Hopkins said: "I see a young woman now." Before: "a confused kid."

First, each platoon performed ...

"Wolfpack!!"

Then the surge of reunions.

"Platoon sergeants take charge of your platoons and send them out to the families."

Adjekai Stewart found her mother. So did Francisco Lazo. Edward Tucker's embrace of his grandmother came with soft words, but still could not relieve the pain of absence.

"Oh, I am so proud of you, so proud of you. Just keep up the good work."

Asked if there was anyone he wished was there that wasn't, Tucker replied:

"My mother. I love her to death, and I hope the best where ever she is at. To be honest I wish she were here, I know she would be proud of me."

The next four hours would be filled with tears, encouragement and bonding.

"I've raised Kai by myself the last 17 years and we were best friends in the beginning and somehow along the way I lost her," said the mother of Adjekai Stewart. "And now... it's ... she's back. She's this beautiful young woman standing here. And I knew that's who she was this whole time. And now she can see it."

"The one thing we as cadets can be proud of is that we were able to put a smile and see tears in our families that were joyful," said Adjekai. "Because they were proud of us. We did something meaningful."

But the cadets would soon have to fall back in line and for now leave their families behind.

"I don't want to go," said Adjekai.

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Cadets march in formation at Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy
CBS News

"I used to go out to the mall ... I used to go out to the mall ..." they chant. "Now I'm here with all of y'all. Now I'm here with all of y'all," they chant as they march. "And it won't be long, 'til I get on back home!"

A very emotional day. But they still have three months to go, with some big challenges ahead. When the program started there were 216 cadets. Six have dropped out.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.