When Tiffany Ballard entered the Louisiana National Guard’s Youth Challenge Program in April, the days were excruciatingly long and the months felt like years.

But with few options after getting expelled from Walker High School for popping pills, Ballard, 17, and her mother decided the 51/2- month Youth Challenge program that is part boarding school and part boot camp could help the teen get her life back on the right track.

“I didn’t think this was going to change me, but it did,” Ballard said. “When I came here, I realized how important my family is to me.”

On Saturday, Ballard joined 253 fellow cadets from 41 parishes, many of whom had similar stories, for a graduation ceremony at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker.

Ballard was part of select company at the graduation as one of 16 cadets who were five-star cadets, meaning they excelled in all aspects of the program and were seen as leaders by their peers and by the program’s leaders.

In the minds of some, the ceremony is the beginning of the journey, not the end.

“We’ve given these kids the right tools to be successful,” said retired Col. Michael Borrel, director of educational programs for the Louisiana National Guard. “This is one step to becoming a normal citizen.”

The program at the Gillis W. Long Center in Carville is one of more than 30 Youth Challenge Programs nationwide. In addition to the program in Carville, the Louisiana National Guard has one at Camp Beauregard near Alexandria and at Camp Minden near Bossier City.

Youth Challenge offers at-risk teens ages 16 to 18 an opportunity to pass their high school equivalency test, learn life skills and job training and discover leadership and responsible citizenship in a military-like environment.

Students are in class for about six hours a day. They play sports and do physical fitness training in the afternoon, and listen to guest speakers and hold study sessions at night.

The cadets walked across the stage on Saturday wearing green caps and gowns, accepting their graduation certificate from program director Capt. Jackie Manton as hundreds of family members looked on with pride at their accomplishment. Some plan to enlist in the military while others will begin working or will enroll in college or vocational school.

One cadet who plans to join the Marine Corps is Zackory Broussard, of Leesville. His stepfather Dean Zander, a U.S. Army veteran, called the program a “godsend” for Broussard.

Zander said they tried everything from school counselors to professional social workers and life coaches for Broussard to help him find his way in the world but nothing worked. Except for the program.

“I feel it has saved his life,” Zander said.

Manton stressed during the ceremony how much each cadet progressed academically under the program. He said the average was a 2.7 grade level increase, meaning each student progressed two years and seven months academically in just under six months.

Eighty cadets earned a total of more than 650 college credits through the Bossier Parish Community College, while the class as a whole completed more than 18,600 hours of community service.

St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson delivered the keynote address, urging the cadets to remember the four Fs: family, friends, fun and faith.

“You have proven that if you set your mind to something, you can do it,” he said.

In an interview before Saturday’s graduation ceremony, Sgt. 1st Class Arthur Johnson, the class disciplinarian, said many of the teens who entered Carville as immature, rudderless children in need of guidance left with a better understanding of how to be productive members of society.

“The only thing they needed to understand was that for every action, there is a consequence,” Johnson said, describing the group as one of the better ones he’s worked with in his 11 years with the program.

Two cadets who received the message loud and clear were Nicholas Confident, a 16-year-old from New Orleans who was voted Cadet of the Cycle by program leaders and educators, and Kirk Candiff Jr., a five-star cadet from Carencro.

“It means a lot,” Confident said of earning Cadet of the Cycle. “I worked hard to get here.”

Before joining the program, Confident did not work much at anything, instead spending his days skipping school at Warren Easton High School and smoking marijuana with friends.

“It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it,” Confident said, referring to school. “It was just that I didn’t care.”

But joining the program changed his outlook on life, leading him to apply himself more at the program and get into college to study either petroleum engineering or medical sciences.

“I have goals now and a future,” Confident said. “Before, I didn’t care about anything.”

For Candiff, a series of bad decisions and destructive behavior that almost landed him in jail was the start of a process to change the direction he was headed in.

“I made a lot of poor decisions before I came here,” Candiff, 16, said candidly. “I feel honestly since I’ve came here, I’ve matured.”

In March, Candiff punched holes in the walls of his parents’ home and broke anything breakable he could get his hands on, leading his parents to call the Carencro Police Department. Officers left him with a warning that if they had to come back, they would arrest him.

Less than a month later, he interviewed for the program and began with the rest of his classmates on April 13.

“They’ve given me the education I needed, the discipline I need,” Candiff said of the program. “They taught me how to take care of myself, and they’ve helped me to become a more mature person.”

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