Washington Youth Academy cadets get second chance
Cadet Stewart volunteers at a Kitsap Regional Library.
A story of one cadet's journey to getting back on track
Shantelle Stewart had given up. At 17, she was ready to drop out of high school. She didn’t care what anyone thought of her. She was coping with depression.
She was into drugs. She was failing school. Then, two of her closest friends died.
And things just went from bad to worse.
“It was just a downward spiral … and I couldn’t get out,” Stewart said.
“I just kind of plummeted downhill and started doing negative things with my life – smoking weed, skipping school a lot, sneaking out,” Stewart added. “I was just doing stuff I wasn’t supposed to do. And I knew it. Once I got caught and I saw the pain in my dad and step-mom’s eyes, I knew it was time to take action and change the course of my life.”
Enter the Washington Youth Academy in Bremerton. The Washington Youth Academy is a division of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, operated by the Washington Military Department. Established under authority of both federal and state law, the Youth Academy is a state-run residential and post-residential intervention for youth who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out. Stewart was a perfect fit.
The Washington Youth Academy is a quasi-military training and mentoring program for at-risk youth. The goal of the program is to give youth a second chance to become responsible and productive citizens by helping them improve their life skills, education levels and employment potential.
The program incorporates a highly structured format, with an emphasis on student discipline and personal responsibility to provide a positive, safe and secure learning environment.
“My biological mom had left me when I was little,” Stewart said. “She was into meth and alcohol. My step-mom and dad had their struggles but were able to better their lives to give me a better environment to help me become successful.”
Stewart left Mt. View High School in Vancouver back in January to join 171 candidates for the Washington Youth Academy, who underwent a grueling two-week acclimation phase of physical and mental prowess before they had the right to call themselves cadets. Then, each cadet had to maintain strict discipline and maintain good grades. As of today, there are 140 cadets set to graduate on June 20. Stewart will be among the graduates.
“I knew two cadets that went here and they said it wasn’t a nice place,” Stewart said, noting there were complaints about the food, the sleeping conditions, all of the exercise and having to live in such close quarters with dozens of other teenagers for nearly six months.
“But that’s because they weren’t trying to change,” Stewart says now. “They were forced to come here. I decided to come here because I knew it would be a positive thing and I would be away from all of the negative influences. That way, even if I was trying to better myself and go back to my old ways, I would be surrounding myself with other people who were also trying to change their lives.”
She didn’t always think that way.
She remembers her first couple weeks at the Academy, but what she remembers most is the crying. Not because she was hurt or because anyone had done anything mean to her.
“It was all just too much,” Stewart said. “My first day was like hell. I kept trying to convince the cadre to let me go home but Lt. Willis said I see something in you and I won’t let you go home. It was 24-7 that I was crying. We’d be towing the line. We’d be going to chow. I wouldn’t eat because I was so upset. At the time, I didn’t see the positives of what it could be.”
Jamila Larson, a Youth Mentor Advocate at the Washington Youth Academy, says she remembers Stewart being moved from a bed to a cot because her crying those first few days kept her fellow cadets awake. It was right in front of Larson’s office.
“I remembered her very clearly and see how much she has changed into a young woman that we can all respect,” Larson said. “She’s an example now for everyone else.”
Now, she says, her grades are up and she’s on her way to getting all of the credits she needs in order to graduate on time with her class in Vancouver. She says she’s also cut ties with bad influences and friends that could put her on the wrong path.
“That’s the hardest part,” she said. “I’ve changed, but my friends haven’t.”
She credits her cadre Ashley Ramshaw with being the biggest influence. Cadre staff are a mix of drill sergeants and quasi-parents responsible for overseeing the welfare of each of the cadets.
“She was there for me when I needed her to be,” Stewart said. “She’s helped me earn this second chance – and I won’t let anyone down.”
Cadet Stewart meets with Congressman Dave Reichert during lunch at the WYA.
Stewart said she was always interested in politics and how laws were made, but became particularly excited when she got to meet Secretary of State Kim Wyman. Wyman made a special trip to visit cadets at the Youth Academy and then took more time to visit with them when cadets made a special field trip to Olympia.
“She was just so amazing,” Stewart said. “I turn 18 in October and I just can’t wait to vote. I can’t wait to get my friends to vote. I really think we can all make a difference.”
Stewart’s thoughts traversed social media and got back to Wyman, who Tweeted out recently, “I am in politics because I am inspired by women like Cadet Stewart!”
Stewart says she’s in shock that someone like Wyman would even pay attention to her.
Stewart had a chance recently to hang out during a lunch break with U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert as the congressman took a lengthy tour of the Academy. Reichert told of his roots pulling himself up from his bootstraps when as a young man he was homeless and living out of his car to becoming King County Sheriff and ultimately a congressman.
“He was just so inspirational,” Stewart said. “He gave me advice for school and how to really get involved.”
“I have so many people looking out for me now,” Stewart said. “I’m not alone. I have my parents, my cadre, my counselor – and even Secretary Wyman who care. This has been a dream come true for me. It’s going to be sad to graduate, but I won’t let anyone down.”