LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — For some, a second chance can be the opportunity of a lifetime.

That's been the case for Angela Hennessey, a student cadet at Sunburst Youth Academy on the Joint Air Forces base in Los Alamitos.

What You Need To Know

  • Sunburst Youth Academy is a 17-month military-style leadership program for youths 16-18 years old who are struggling

  • The program helps students recover credits to graduate on time

  • Five months of the program are residential, and students have no access to cell phones, social media, video games, or drugs

  • The program's core components include academic excellence, job skills, physical fitness, and life coping skills

Today, Hennessey an honor roll student with a GPA nearing 4.0, but it wasn’t always that way. Before enrolling at Sunburst, her GPA was less than 1.0, and she was headed down a bad road.

“I would say I was just not as motivated towards life as I am now,” she said.

Hennessey lost her father a few years ago and was suffering to the point where her family — and even Angela herself — felt it was best for her to attend Sunburst's five-month, military-style training program, which partners with the Orange County Department of Education, so that she could get on track.

"Many of us due to drugs or bad choices," said Hennessey. "We wouldn’t necessarily put in the physical work that we are now."

The 16- to 18-year-old students have all struggled with something, whether it be drugs, alcohol, family situations, relationship issues, or lack of resources. The one thing they all have in common is a desire to make a positive change.

Dominic Ferrell has always dreamed of joining the military and shows how these students are more like cadets. In a unique pandemic role reversal, the kids actually went to class for several months, while their teachers taught from home. It's an accountability they take into all areas of their lives.

"We’ve all decided to do certain things for certain reasons," said Ferrell. "Some of us couldn’t really choose. It was just that’s how life gave it to us. But this program has definitely changed us a lot. It’s taught us how to teach ourselves discipline, how to show integrity."

With an 87% success rate, the Academy changes the lives of over 200 students every year. But in 2020, their ability to recruit has dwindled, according to Staff Sgt. Ryan Salvoni, who is down to just over 100 cadets since he hasn't been able to go and speak about the program at other campuses.

“Definitely COVID has thrown a loop into how we are able to go out and reach families and communicate with the students who may have an interest in attending the academy,” said Salvoni.

Still, Principal Dinah Ismail sees every year how her students’ choice to embrace structure ends up being the very thing that gives them choices to turn their lives around.

“When we’re able to, for the very first time for many of our students, to feel success, for them to feel success for the first time, and for their dreams and their hopes for the future to shift,” said Ismail.

Funded by the Department of Defense and the state, the program is the equivalent of a $22,000 scholarship. It also provides another year of guidance beyond the 65 credits students recover to graduate on-time.

For Hennessey, who now has the relationship with her family she never had, and who will be the first person in it to go to college, she knows that her dad — who can’t be here — is looking down, bursting with pride.

"I’d like to think that he’s very proud of me because everything that I’m achieving now, unfortunately my dad hasn’t been able to achieve in his passing life," said Hennessey. "So I just feel with a lot of decisions I’ve made, especially in coming here, I’m sort of making him proud, in the sense that I’m doing everything that he couldn’t and would have wanted himself to be able to do. And seeing down everything that I’m doing, I’m sure that he’s just rooting for me."

To learn more about Sunburst, visit https://www.sunburstadmissions.com/.