Not too long ago, Cadet Trevell Smith was living in his car and facing a bleak future. But on Saturday, he filled his family with pride as he marched in a dress military uniform and carried the American flag in a formal military review ceremony at the Gillis Long Center.

Smith, 19, is among 251 young men and women in the Louisiana National Guard Youth Challenge program and was one of four serving in the Color Guard for the ceremony. The same four youths are scheduled to present the colors to open the special legislative budget session on Sunday that was called by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Family day at Gillis Long was a welcome break for cadets from the rigorous academic classes and grueling physical training they undergo in the program. It also was an opportunity to show more than 2,000 friends and family that their previous “at-risk” behavior is behind them, and they are marching into a bright future.

“We’re proud of you,” and “I love you,” could be heard all over the center’s parade grounds as hundreds of parents and loved ones embraced their cadets following their dismissal from the platoon ranks.

The cadets have, since Oct. 11, been living an energetic military schedule and staying in smoke-free, phone-free, Internet-free, gender-segregated dorms at the sprawling Gillis Long Center. Most will graduate with high school equivalency diplomas, now called the HiSet, an alternative to the GED, on March 19.

Smith, of Kenner, found his mother Trenesse Smith in the mob, and a huge smile broke across her face as she hugged his neck.

“I had to drop out of high school. I called them every day because I felt this was my last chance and I really, really needed it,” Cadet Smith said with a big, confident smile. “This will help me get a good job.”

“He actually put himself in the program,” Trenesse Smith said. “I’m very, very proud of him.”

Her husband, James Scott, said Trevell is “a strong young man. I’m behind him 100 percent. He’s doing positive things with his life.”

Cadet Ashlyn Moncrief, 17, of West Monroe, got a series of hugs from her dad, mother, grandmother and sister. She came here, she said, because she was “defiant and rebellious,” using drugs and dropped out of high school.

“My dad talked me into coming here, and I’m very grateful because I’ve overcome everything I needed to in life,” Moncrief said. “I found out I’m good at science. I want to be a pharmacy technician.”

Her father, Shawn Moncrief, said, “I’m ecstatic about the changes I’ve seen in my daughter. This program has shown her that she can do anything she puts her mind to do.”

Ashlyn’s mother, Nancy Moncrief, described her daughter as a different young woman than the one who came into the program, one who has matured and has a different mindset on life.

Quineisha Joseph, 16, who lives with her grandmother in Baton Rouge, said she was out of school for about six weeks before she entered the program. “YCP really helped me get my scores up,” she said. “I want to be a cosmetologist.”

Major Jackie Manton, director of this YCP program, said that while the 251 cadets could be classified as “at-risk” students, they are not in a boot camp, or forced by the courts to be there.

“This is all voluntary, and they are drug-free,” Manton said. “They are on a journey of transforming themselves into fine young men and women.”

The students are given a Test of Adult Basic Education, TABE, when they enter, during their enrollment and when they finish.

Manton said they’ve had some enter the program testing at a second- or third-grade level but “end up getting a 12.9, which means 12th grade, nine months” by the time they finish.

“We do five different TABE tests while they are here to determine where they are improving and where they need help,” Manton said. “Each cadet gets an individualized program.”

Sgt. Major Cliff Warner challenged the parents to be a part of their cadet’s success. “Remember, they are still on a journey. Our goal is to see them walk across the (graduation) stage so you can tell them, well done.”

The teens marched in formations and passed in front of the hundreds of onlookers in tight formations. The platoons, four comprised of young men and two of young women, were named, Wildcats, Jaguars, Longhorns, Scorpions, Bulldogs, Wolf Pack and Vipers.

Col. Michael Borrel, director of educational programs, supervises all three state YCP programs in Louisiana — Gillis Long at Carville, Camp Beauregard and Camp Minden.

“Louisiana has the largest YCP program in the country,” Borrel said. “Over 20,000 have graduated from the Louisiana program.”

He said they track the cadets for a year after they graduate to make sure they continue in the right direction.