By Donald Rodrigue
FORT PIERCE --Eight Fort Pierce youth became the first to complete the intensive four-week summer course of the inaugural class of the Second Chance Cadet Academy.
Approximately 52 people attended the graduation ceremony held Aug. 1 at the Second Street Bistro in downtown Fort Pierce, including Mayor Linda Hudson and other city officials.
The brainchild of Fort Pierce Commissioner Reginald Sessions and St. Lucie County Sheriff's Detective Paul Pearson, the Second Chance Cadet Academy was designed to provide severely troubled youth the opportunity to interact properly with adults and other authority figures.
"My objective and goal was to try and get a program that would offer some type of motivation by way of mentoring the boys to build up their self-esteem to take them off the streets," Commissioner Sessions said. "You hear the concept all the time that it takes a village to raise a child, but the village is not addressing the problem child, and that is what this is geared towards."
Mr. Sessions sent out letters to area juvenile justice officials asking them to refer youthful offenders to the academy and allow their participation to satisfy the requirement of community service hours. Detective Pearson, executive director of the Police Athletic League of Fort Pierce that funded the program, said most of the students came from the court system.
"We started out with 11 and eight graduated," he said. "Most of them didn't want to be there to begin with, but after a couple of days they realized that we were there to help them."
The boys met with instructors at the Percy-Peek Gymnasium from 9 a.m. through 3 p.m., Monday through Friday to participate in team exercises, listen to guest speakers, get one-on-one counseling and mentoring and go on field trips.
Duane "Justice" Henry, the academy's lead instructor, said he and his staff succeeded in reaching each of the youth in different ways.
"They weren't just bad kids but had just made poor choices," Mr. Henry said. "We went through conflict resolution and we had guest speakers come to speak about topics like HIV. We wanted to teach them that there is a better way to do things rather than gang banging and fighting."
Commissioner Sessions says the idea behind the academy concept was to separate the young men, at least temporarily, from some of their negative surroundings.
"We desired to remove them from their ongoing problematic situations in order to show them a positive side of life that awaits them or the alternative harsh consequences of the criminal justice system," he said.
The students and their instructors took field trips to the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit, St. Lucie County's Solid Waste Baling and Recycling Facility and the Navy Seal Museum. They also enjoyed a tour of the Indian River Lagoon with Captain Barry "Chop" Lege and horseback riding at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park. Mr. Sessions said one particular trip made a significant impact on the group.
"They went out to the St. Lucie County Jail and saw the pods and where the inmates live," he said. "I constantly tell them that the alternative is a very harsh consequence if they don't straighten up and stop being a problem."
A native of the Bronx in New York City, the students' lead instructor says he knew peer pressure personally while growing up and so could identify with his young charges. His primary goal was to teach them how to be leaders and not followers.
"It's a battle here," Mr. Henry said. "The bad guys are trying to get them."