The journey of redemption for five Central Oregon teens is nearly over.
In the final part of our four-part series on the Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge Program, the teens graduate from the program and reflect on how far they've come -- and where they're going now.
?I honestly think I'm going to cry on graduation,? said La Pine cadet Frank Ayson. ?I really do, because I'm going to miss everyone. Everyone has just helped me along so far. I mean they've inspired me. I couldn't have done it without them.?
?I didn't think this day would come,? said Culver cadet Jared Hettick. ?I still feel like I'm going to go right back: 'Class 39 dismissed, now get back on the buses.'?
?I didn't think i would make it,? said Prineville cadet Mele Carson. ?I had my doubts, just like stupid stuff, like my attitude, what if I don't change? But it just happened by itself, and I'm here.?
?I feel I'm not shy anymore, and I can open up,? said Bend cadet Nichole Eytchison.
?Seeing the change in myself, in getting ready to go to college, is something I never thought I'd do,? said Redmond cadet Anthony Reed. ?Or just the amount of credits, or all the hard work I've done here, and seeing it all being paid back now.?
More than 100 Oregon teenagers have made it through the program. And all of these five Central Oregon teens say they've changed for the better.
?I'm definitely a better person,? said Ayson. ?I would be depressed. I used to take my anger out on everyone else. I mean, I used to wonder if i was really worth anyone's time. I just really didn't like myself -- or anyone else, for that matter.?
?My self-confidence went from way down there to through the roof," Carson said. "It's great.?
Anthony Reed of Redmond feels changed, too, and he really wanted to share his experience at graduation. And he was one of a few cadets chosen to do so.
?Since arriving here at the Oregon Youth Challenge, I've learned a lot about life-coping skills, and about myself,? Reed said in his speech. ?Now and forever, I will never quit something that I start. I will finish it with pride and honor, to the best of my ability. I know that I no longer have to depend on drugs to run my life, because I'm perfectly capable of doing it myself.?
Now it's time for these Central Oregon teens to graduate.
Ayson and Hettick are now both on pace to graduate from high school.
Reed plans to get his remaining high school credits at Central Oregon Community College, then he wants to get his college degree in social work.
Carson also wants to get the rest of her high school credits at COCC, then get into the engineering or mechanical fields.
Eytchison is applying to get into Job Corps, and is interested in the culinary arts.
Perhaps Carson said it best, when asked what else she'll take with her.
?They told us at the beginning that, 'You didn't come here for friends,'? she recalled. ?'You didn't come here for this, you didn't come here for that. But you're going to leave with a family' -- and I did. So all the guys are like my brothers, and all the girls are my sisters.?
For these five Central Oregon cadets, and the many other teens who have been through the tough but rewarding program, it's truly been a journey of redemption.