By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009; B01
Cadet Jamal DuCote Peters walked into the barracks office and took off his cap and gown. He hoisted his black backpack, from which his boots hung, and grabbed the white padlocked duffel bag holding his gear. And he began to say his goodbyes.
"Sir," he told Cpl. Christopher McFadden, "thank you."
"All right, Peters," McFadden said. "All right, buddy. Be safe, hear? Congratulations."
Then Peters, 18, of Northeast Washington, clad in a white dress shirt, gray necktie and black pants, walked out the door of Building 4220 into the parking lot and the bright morning sunshine and started toward his mother's car.
"Free," he said with a smile, "free at last."
Peters and 100 other "at-risk" teenagers from Maryland and the District had just returned from the base theater, also at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where they graduated as Class 33 of the National Guard's Freestate Challenge Academy.
For 22 weeks, they voluntarily endured the residential academy's military-style regimen of tough discipline, physical training and intense classroom work to secure a high school equivalency degree and a second chance at life.
Many had been steered to the academy by the juvenile court system, where their troubles had landed them. Some were former gang members. Others came from shattered families or were on the verge of homelessness. Most were unemployed high school dropouts on the road to nowhere. And some, like Peters, were just aimless and unmotivated and knew they needed a change.
There had been 170 in the beginning, when they arrived at the sprawling Army base northeast of Baltimore on July 12. This was the scene: a drill sergeant bellowing instructions from an upper-story barracks window as they sat on the macadam in the broiling sun attempting to eat lunch.
Scores left because of discipline problems, homesickness or violations of the stringent barracks rules.
Despite the hollering instructors, the 5:30 a.m. wake-ups, the unbending discipline and the lack of contact with the outside world, most survived the Freestate challenge. Many thrived. To maintain their gains, the program will continue the graduates' relationship with their community mentors for a year.
District teenagers attended via the D.C. National Guard's Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy, which sends students through Maryland's program. Seventeen Washington youths graduated.
Cadets' scores on the high school equivalency test won't be known until later, academy officials said, but most cadets in past classes have passed.
Peters, who had been a soft-spoken, slightly overweight young man who stood with a slouch and lived in a comfortable condominium with his mother, lost 20 pounds and was named the top cadet of "the cycle" during Saturday's emotional commencement ceremony.
He seemed to stand taller. "I'm ecstatic," he said Saturday. "I'm happy I came here. I'm happy I did what I had to do. . . . I really don't have words. I'm just happy, happier than I've been in a really long time."
His mother, Sonte DuCote, was delighted with the transformation. "I just feel elated," she said. "I'm just so overjoyed. I'm so proud of him. Pride is really the overwhelming feeling. Pride and promise."
DuCote had been among relatives, friends and other well-wishers who jammed into the base theater to cheer and take pictures of jubilant graduates in blue caps and gowns.
Two cadets spoke during the ceremony. One, Terrell A. Dorsey, 17, of Waldorf, asked his mother to stand. "Thanks for not giving up on me," he said. "I am now ready to be the man you prayed I would become."
A hush fell over the auditorium soon after Cadet Christina Sanchez, 16, of Severn began to deliver her speech.
"My name is Cadet Sanchez, and I would like to share my story with you," she said. Sanchez started weeping as she told how her father had been an alcoholic and her mother a drug addict, and how she and her siblings had been taken from her parents and placed in foster care.
"Don't cry, baby," other cadets called from the audience.
But Sanchez could not help herself. She cried, telling how she spent much of her childhood caring for her siblings, trying in vain to make a family life for them, until the children were sent away to a group home and foster care.
She told of finding a foster family who loved her and invited them up on stage. She apologized to them for things she had done wrong and thanked them for what they had done for her. "I've had 22 long weeks to think about the things that I've done," she said. "And in that time, I've come to an understanding."
She also thanked her fellow cadets.
"Each and every one of you has taught me something that I will remember for the rest of my life," she said. "I would like for every graduate of Class 33 to look around you.
"All of us," she said, "have made it."
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