Nicholas Confident had never worked at anything in his life.
The 16-year-old from New Orleans was content skipping classes at Warren Easton High School and smoking marijuana with his friends.
“It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it,” Confident said, referring to school. “It was just that I didn’t care.”
But enrolling in the Louisiana National Guard’s Youth Challenge Program changed his outlook toward hard work, and on Saturday, he joined 253 fellow cadets from 41 parishes, many of whom had similar stories, for a graduation ceremony at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker.
“I have goals now and a future,” said Confident, who wants to study either petroleum engineering or medical sciences in college.
He was part of select company at the ceremony — one of 16 graduates designated as five-star cadets, meaning they excelled in all aspects of the 5 ½ -month program and were seen as leaders by their peers and the program’s leaders.
Confident was so highly regarded that he was named the Cadet of the Cycle by program leaders.
“It means a lot,” he said of earning the honor. “I worked hard to get here.”
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 one at Camp Minden near Bossier City.
Youth Challenge — part boarding school and part boot camp — offers at-risk teens ages 16 to 18 an opportunity to pass their high school equivalency test, learn life skills, receive 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 Saturday wearing green caps and gowns, accepting their graduation certificates from program director Capt. Jackie Manton as hundreds of family members looked on proudly. Some of the graduates 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 the family tried everything from school counselors to professional social workers and life coaches to help Broussard find his way in the world, but nothing worked — until this 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 less than six months.
Eighty cadets earned a total of more than 650 college credits through 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 the 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 five-star cadets Tiffany Ballard, 17, of Denham Springs, and Kirk Candiff Jr., 16, of Carencro.
Ballard was nearly out of options after she was expelled from Walker High School for popping pills, until she and her mother decided the Youth Challenge program 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.”
The change was so severe that when Ballard went back home on a weekend pass about seven weeks into the program, she did not go hang out with friends or visit any of her old haunts. Instead, she cleaned her mom’s house all weekend.
“It was instinct,” she said.
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,” he said candidly. “I feel honestly that since I 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.”
Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter, @ryanmbroussard.