Newcastle teen takes control of spiraling life

May 1, 2014

By Christina Corrales-Toy

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By Christina Corrales-Toy Terrence Neese talks at Renton’s Secondary Learning Center about the benefits of the Washington Youth Academy.

By Christina Corrales-Toy
Terrence Neese talks at Renton’s Secondary Learning Center about the benefits of the Washington Youth Academy.

Newcastle teen Terrence Neese should have worn a cap and gown on June 13, 2013.

He was supposed to embrace his parents as he emerged from the Kent ShoWare Center with a Hazen High School diploma.

Terrence was there to watch his classmates that day, but with insufficient credits to graduate, he was sitting in the stands, not on the floor.

“These are the kids I grew up with,” he said. “How did I get to a point where they are all going on in their lives without me? How did that happen?”

It happened because he was more concerned with partying than schoolwork and more likely to sleep through the day than go to class, he said.

Terrence went to the graduation ceremony to support his friends, but he left the arena with a much-needed wakeup call.

“When he went to that graduation it was very, very hard on him,” Terrence’s mom Tammy said. “I don’t think he was prepared for how far he had gone off track until he was sitting there in that auditorium.”

Terrence looks upon that June day as the turning point, when he said enough is enough, and attempted to take back his life.

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Less than a year later, the previously unmotivated teen has now dined with four-star generals and hopes to attend the U.S. Military Academy, thanks to a local program that just wouldn’t let him fail.


Washington Youth Academy

Terrence’s academic challenges began during middle school, Tammy said, making for an overall frustrating school experience.

He did OK during his freshman year at Hazen. He was passing his classes, but as time went on, she and her husband could tell he was burnt out and heading toward a future as a high-school dropout.

An opportunity arose for Terrence to visit India for half of a school year, and the family saw it is a chance for him to regroup.

“It kind of had the opposite result,” Tammy said. “He did fabulous in India, experienced successes right and left, but when he came back, he was now really far behind in school.”

Terrence knew he would have to make up credits when he returned, but he wasn’t ready for the true impact of being so behind his peers.

The frustration of school led to drug and alcohol experimentation, he said. Terrence would often skip class and hang out with a rough crowd.

“Once you distance yourself from people who want success, you’re left with people who are going to bring you down, and that’s what happened with me,” he said.

On the verge of dropping out of school, Terrence enrolled at the Renton School District’s new Secondary Learning Center, which offers a more flexible study program to accommodate students’ challenges.

It was there that he met instructor Erin Bristow, who saw something in him that he had yet to see in himself.

“He was a young man without a center or grounding. He showed sparks of greatness, and then would fade off into peer pressure, fun and games,” Bristow said. “He was one of those students you can imagine doing great things, if only he could find his way.”

After Terrence expressed an interest in future military service, it was Bristow that suggested the Washington Youth Academy to him. The six-month intense program imbeds at-risk teens in a quasi-military atmosphere.

The cadets take classes, earn high-school credits and get the opportunity to “get back on track,” while  leaders, many of whom have military backgrounds, coach them in discipline, life skills and personal responsibility.

It’s six months away from friends, family and society’s vices. The teens must leave their electronics at home and only commit to the no-cost, voluntary program based in Bremerton if it is truly what they want.

“They want you to want to be there, because without you wanting to be there, you’re not going to succeed,” Terrence said.

The onsite portion lasts about six months, but in its entirety, the program is about 17 months. After the cadets leave, they continue 12 months of post-residential mentoring.

‘Why care about us?’

Terrance attended the program’s orientation just weeks after watching his classmates graduate without him.

He was weary, especially after seeing how physically demanding the program was, but it was an experience that he knew he needed.

From the moment the cadets arrived, leaders worked to mentally strip them down, before methodically building them back up, Terrence said.

The first two weeks were the acclimation phase in which the teens were given a rude awakening into the military lifestyle of discipline.

“The way we said it was ‘embrace the suck,’” Terrence said of the intense training. “It’s going to suck, but that’s just life.”

There were times when Terrence would stand just feet away from the gate, steps from freedom, as he seriously contemplated leaving. If he left, though, he knew he wouldn’t be welcomed back, and his second chance would be squandered.

Terrence endured the six months of training, leadership classes and team-building exercises, thanks mostly to an academy staff that wouldn’t let up on him, he said.

“They really care about these cadets and it’s crazy, because these are just a bunch of random at-risk kids. Why care about us? But they do, and they make us succeed. They don’t let us fail,” he said.

When he returned to Newcastle in December, Terrence was a different person, both physically and emotionally.

He had confidence, goals and purpose, things he lacked before he left, Tammy said. He has since become a poster child of sorts for the great good the academy can do.


‘How great he could be’

Terrence was invited to Washington, D.C., at the end of February and he met with generals and congressional leaders to talk about how the academy changed him.

He also played piano at a gala to support the National Guard Youth Foundation, which backs programs such as the Washington Youth Academy.

Today, he’s working toward his goal of attending West Point. Terrence has one class to finish at the Secondary Learning Center before he receives his high school diploma this June. He’s already working on a college degree, too, simultaneously attending classes at Seattle Central Community College.

He hopes to eventually transfer into the University of Washington’s ROTC program, before applying to West Point.

“If there’s one thing the academy taught me, is that I can do it,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work, and it’s not going to be easy, but I can do it.”

Bristow will have to contain herself when she sees Terrence receive his high-school diploma. The Secondary Learning Center instructor calls him her “Superstar,” and is not at all surprised at his transformation.

“I feel confident that Terrence will make a difference in our world, and most importantly, can see that he believes in himself,” she said. “That is the stuff teachers live for.”

Terrence’s mom gets emotional when talking about her son’s renewed state of mind. She remembers searching high and low for some sort of program that would keep him “above water.”

Tammy wishes she had known about the academy sooner, but now that she does, both she and Terrence are committed advocates of the program, telling anyone they can about its benefits, she said.

“He never saw how great he could be,” she said, “so it is incredibly humbling as a mother, that these people were able to bring that to the surface for him.”

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