Police chiefs play role in reshaping lives of troubled teens

By Lou Ponsi

Receiving a high school diploma is a milestone in a teenager’s life.

For the 154 cadets who graduated from the Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy, the accomplishment represents a life reclaimed.

Brandon Cruz gives SFC Timothy Edwards a hug after receiving his certificate as Dorian Darden, right, is congratulated by Congressman Lou Correa during the Sunburst Youth Academy Class of 21 Commencement Ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Sunburst is a National Guard Challenge program targeting at-risk youngsters ages 16 to 18 who have dropped out of high school.

The priority of the academy is to provide an education while fostering self-discipline, life skills and values.

Cadets give a standing ovation as graduates receive their high school diplomas.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Police chiefs and command staff from several Orange County agencies were front and center at Cottonwood Church in Los Alamitos on June 9, applauding along with hundreds of family members as the cadets walked across the stage, diplomas and certificates in hand.

The chiefs are members of the North Orange County Public Safety Task Force, a partnership of law enforcement and community based organizations who collaborate to address youth violence as one of three focus areas.

The Sunburst Youth Academy Color Guard posts the colors at the start of the commencement ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The task force has been working with Sunburst for a year.

“This is the first time a lot of these kids have ever accomplished anything,” said Cypress Police Chief Rod Cox, a member of the task force advisory council. “So it’s unbelievable when you see them. They are ecstatic. It’s really cool to watch.”

When officers on the street identify teens that could benefit from Sunburst, the police agency will help coordinate a meeting between Sunburst and the youngsters.

Cadets in their cap and gown get ready to receive their high school diplomas.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Ten law enforcement agencies and about 40 community based organizations make up the Task Force, said Soo Kang, Executive Director of the Task Force.

Sunburst is a 17½-month voluntary program consisting of a 5½-month residential and academic phase coordinated with the Orange County Department of Education.

Cadets then advance to a year-long, post-residential mentoring phase.

Cadets get ready to receive their certificates.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The police and Big Brothers Big Sisters Orange County, a Task Force community based funded partner, serve as mentors to the cadets.

“The police department is involved because it’s a public safety task force and it’s law enforcement who are the first responders,” Kang said. “It’s actually an entire village working together and supporting these kids. It’s not just one segment. It can’t be. It’s not a one-segment solution.”

Sunburst Youth Academy Class of 21 high school graduates during their commencement ceremony at Cottonwood Church.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Graduating cadet Nancy Ruelas was one of the featured speakers at the commencement ceremony.

Ruelas told her story to the hundreds in attendance.

She talked about making poor choices and coming from a broken home, where neglect and emotional abuse were the norm.

La Habra Police Captain George Johnstone, left, La Palma Police Chief Terry Kim, and Los Alamitos Police Chief Eric Nuñez attend the Sunburst Youth Academy Class of 21 Commencement Ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Ruelas, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA, praised Sunburst for her transformation.

“Lost, neglected, and hopeless … these are the emotions I felt for many years,” Ruelas said. “We are changed. We are improved. It was always within us, but Sunburst has brought us to our full potential by scraping away the rust we once had so we can once again shine.”

The Sunburst Youth Academy command staff is recognized.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cadet Destiny Monterroso shows her enthusiasm as she walks up to give her student council president speech.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cadet Samuel Quiroz gives his speech after receiving the Class of 21 Distinguished Leadership Award.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Persiphony Perez celebrates after receiving her certificate.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Graduates move their tassels from the right to the left side after receiving their high school diplomas.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

High school graduates and recipients of Sunburst Youth Academy Program certificates celebrate at the conclusion of the Class of 21 Commencement Ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The Sunburst Youth Academy education faculty and staff are recognized during the ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cadet Safira Rodriguez, right, receives the Most Improved Academic Graduate award along with Cadets Angel Inostroz, left, Andre Nicholson, and Adrian Trujillo.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cadets Dante Long (from left), Christian Torres, Juan Zavala, and Lesly Castillo receive the Most Improved Physical Fitness award from SFC Timothy Edwards, left, SSG Ryan Salvoni, and SSG Salina Munoz.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cadet Ronald Uhlack, second from left, smiles as he receives the Champion Scholarship award from Col. Dee Varner, left, SSG Jeremy Tilt, and Pam Gibbons of the SYA Foundation, during the Sunburst Youth Academy Commencement Ceremony.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cadet Aneaja Nelson, right, receives the Distinguished Academic Graduate award along with Cadets Caleb Harris, left, Jeffrey Salic, and Jose Calderon.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cadets Chelsea Hammond (from left), Hugo Lopez, Bryan Rodriguez, and Javier Mendez receive the Outstanding Physical Fitness award from SFC Timothy Edwards, left, SSG Houa Vue, and WO1 Kristen Spence.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Cadets Jesus Ruiz (from left), Derek Hernandez, Abraham Tavares, and Destiny Monterroso receive the Most Inspirational awards.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The Sunburst Youth Academy Class of 21 lines up outside one last time after commencement ceremonies at Cottonwood Church in Los Alamitos before being dismissed.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC