By Phyllis Zorn, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
For 20 years a program to help youth get back on the right track has operated in Pryor, drawing in youth from across the state and challenging them to achieve their best.
Thunderbird Youth Academy is a 22-week residential program for 16 to 19-year-olds looking to complete their GED or finish needed high school credits. One of 33 such programs across the nation operated under the umbrella of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe programs, Thunderbird is for Oklahoma residents.
There is no charge to be in the program, but college and technical school classes are available at a reduced cost paid by parents.
The current 105-member Thunderbird class, which began July 14, has three northwest Oklahoma cadets. They will graduate Dec. 14.
“Oklahoma was one of the 10 pilot programs from the National Guard that launched in 1993,” said Toni Zetina, admissions counselor for Thunderbird Youth Academy.
Storm Alexander Woodin, a cadet from Enid, calls Thunderbird “one of the best things that has ever happened to me.”
“Before I came to Thunderbird I was pretty much a low-life, bad kid,” Woodin said. “I was a jerk to almost everyone. I didn’t want to be around family. I would rather go out and do stupid stuff with friends than spend time with my mom and dad.”
Kanisa Taylor-Lee, a cadet from Woodward, echoed Woodin.
“Before I came to Thunderbird I went down the wrong path,” Taylor-Lee said. “I’m a high school dropout and I came to TYA to get my GED and my life on track. I hope I get my GED, and then when I go home I will get a good career.”
Thunderbird uses a quasi-military approach, capitalizing on uniformed services principles to teach self-discipline, physical fitness, life skills, job skills, responsibility, service to the community and leadership. Each cadet is paired with a mentor for the 22 weeks of the program and a year following.
“When I first came to TYA, I was scared that I was going to be a quitter and give up on myself, but after the first two weeks, it’s not so bad,” Taylor-Lee said. “Being a cadet is a good thing. You get to go on fun community service projects and go places you’ve never been before. I thought the sergeants here were rude and I didn’t want to listen to anyone, but that won’t get you anywhere in life.”
Felix Jesse Robledo, a cadet from Watonga, said he’s learned important lessons that will carry him through life.
“I have learned many life lessons from the academy, but the one that I will never forget is that having integrity, even when all your buddies are telling you not to, is what will get you to a better place in the future,” Robledo said. “Thunderbird Youth Academy has everything there is to teach you about respect, integrity, courage and commitment, but in the end the choice is yours whether or not you make good use of those skills, or simply disregard them. In my time at the academy I have acquired respect for all authority figures and many life skills. Thunderbird is helping me get into Oklahoma State University and further my education, and they can do the same for you. All you have to do is let them.”
“I have gone really far from where I was, and it’s because Thunderbird pushed, and still pushes, me to be the better person I really am,” Woodin said.
“Before graduating, the cadets are given assistance in finding a placement such as employment, military service, or returning to school,” Zetina said. “Our program has a 76 percent placement rate for the post-residential phase.”
TYA currently is taking applications for the next session, which begins Jan. 14. The program also is seeking volunteer mentors for youth served. For more information, or to apply, go to www.thunderbird.org or call (918) 824-4809.