Youth academy provides stability for local teens

STARKE, Fla. – The core mission of Florida Youth Challenge Academy is to provide a highly disciplined and motivational environment, which not all teens receive at home.

"Following the rules they want us to follow, something that I'm not used to, 'cause I really didn't have no rules at home," Taishalee Lugo said.

Lugo, 17, joined the Florida Youth Challenge  Academy after falling into trouble several times because she was hanging out with the wrong crowd. 

"Getting locked up, fighting, doing all these kinds of drugs," Lugo said about her lifestyle prior to joining the academy.

Those circumstances prompted her to sign up for the academy. On July 8, she left her family behind in Orlando. Two weeks later, she says she can't wait to see them again. 

"I miss them, I miss them very much and I'm looking forward to seeing them and I want to make them very proud" Lugo said, as tears ran down her cheeks.

Among the 200 teens accepted into the program are, Myrique Stevens and twin brothers Samuel and Seth McDaniel. All of the participants were having problems at home.

"I was not listening to my mom, sneaking out of the house, smoking weed. When I knew she truly loved me, I wanted to change and that's why I picked here so that she can see that I'm changing and I can get her trust back and we can have a healthy relationship," said Stevens, a 17-year-old from St. Thomas Island. 

Samuel McDaniel agreed.

"It was like a daily thing to get in trouble, not listening, fighting with them," Samuel McDaniel said.

He and his twin were both causing trouble. The two brothers were separated at the academy.

"Being separate for two weeks is really tough. We can't talk to each other after we've become cadets," Samuel McDaniel said.

The first two weeks, called the acclimation phase, consists of teaching them to follow orders, not talk back, eat at the same time and work as a team. 

"I've learned now to be more respectful, get things done when it's asked the first time," Seth McDaniel said.

Florida Youth Challenge Academy in Starke is the only voluntary program in Florida, funded by the department of defense and the state.

It's a program designed to help young people overcome some life problems. In 1993, a pilot program was launched in 10 states, now 28 states have implemented this quasi military-style academy.

"What we have done since 2001 has grown with society to make sure that every group of kids that come in to this program are given the proper leadership and guidance to go back into the community as productive citizens," said Robin Tyler, a retired military sergeant who works with the academy.

He said these children should not be held accountable, rather it's the world we live in today that's making it harder for them to achieve success.

"You find a lot of kids today growing up on their own with really limited supervision. Our youth today have a whole different world of opportunities but they're waiting on somebody to teach them. When we use the term 'at risk,' they're at risk because many of them are trying to figure out how to survive," Tyler said.

The program is designed in two phases. For the first five and a half months, they live at the academy in Starke, about three hours north of Orlando. Once that phase is completed, they get to go home but are monitored for the next seven months by their mentors to make sure they stay on track and focused on their goals.

For these teens, it's a second chance at a better future.

"It'll change your whole life around. At first maybe you're not gonna like it, but once you start adapting to it, you're gonna love it," Lugo said.

For more information about the Florida Youth Challenge Academy, click here.

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