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Maria Nicasio was so physically and psychologically abused as a child, she was afraid to speak to anyone.

Luis Cardona's mother moved him more than 3,600 miles to get him away from the Colombian gangs only to see him fall in with a similar crowd in Santa Maria.

Both were headed toward a future with few opportunities, but they found a home and a second chance with the Grizzly Youth Academy at Camp San Luis Obispo.

After 18 weeks of their 22-week stay, Nicasio's face lights up with a cheeky, ear-to-ear smile when she talks of the academy and it's effect on her life.

And even though her voice is still soft, her self-confidence is evident in every word she speaks.

Cardona, who didn't like the academy at the outset, is looking to stay in an independent studies program until he can move on to college.

The Santa Maria teens are among a class of more than 200 students at the academy who are getting a second chance.

Virtually all of them will graduate from the academy next month, many with their high school diplomas, which at some point for all of them probably seemed out of reach.

"I came here because I needed the structure and discipline in my life -- and for my self-esteem," the 17-year-old Nicasio said. "They gave me confidence to talk.

"They give you life lessons you won’t forget. It allows you to help other people when you get out of here."

Nicasio was born in Acapulco, Mexico, and raised in the Santa Maria Valley, attending Mary Buren Elementary in Guadalupe and Fairlawn Elementary, Fesler Junior High and Santa Maria High.

She eventually moved into foster care. Talk of her foster parents, David and C.C. Todd, and Grizzly Academy are about the only subjects that draw big smiles from her. 

Cardona is a native of Colombia and didn't move to the Central Coast until he was 15. His mother moved him here to get him away from the drugs and gangs she saw claiming so many young people in their homeland.

The move worked briefly, but Cardona said he fell back into old ways and habits once he made friends in Santa Maria.

"My mother was suffering for me a lot," he said. "I talked to her and she told me she wanted me to change. I told her I want to make better decisions for my life."

He said counselors at Santa Maria High told him about Grizzly Youth Academy.

"I wasn’t very excited at first, but I found some things on it that I really liked a lot," he said.

Self-discipline, self-control and self-confidence are three of the things the academy emphasizes, said Grizzly Director Lt. Col. Tim Vincent.

Vincent, who was born and raised in Santa Maria, has seen a lot of kids like Nicasio and Cardona.

Even though he has 26 years with the California National Guard, he was also a teacher and school administrator for many years -- much of that in Santa Maria -- before moving to the Grizzly Youth Academy.

"We have about 50/50, where you have 50 percent of the kids have made poor choices despite support from their parents and 50 percent where life has just not dealt them a fair hand based on poor choices their parents have made — if their parents are even around at home," he explained. "They just need a chance to exhale."

Nicasio and Cardona fit perfectly into those groups. Her her biological parents were the cause of her low self-esteem, constantly telling her to be quiet and abusing her when she tried to speak.

Cardona made his own poor choices, messing with drugs and hanging out with a bad crowd, which put his future at risk.

The Grizzly approach

The Grizzly Academy has changed the pair's lives like it has for more than 113,000 kids since it opened in 1988.

The residential charter high school was created by a partnership between the California National Guard and the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education.

It's structured as a military boarding school to promote an academic environment that develops leadership and cooperation.

A recent San Luis Obispo County grand jury report called the academy "a little known gem" of the Central Coast.

Contrary to some perceptions, it is not a pipeline to the military, although many students do funnel to various branches of the armed forces.

Vincent said he takes many steps to make sure the academy doesn't become a recruiting tool for the military.

"We’re not looking for these (4.0 GPA students) or kids interested in joining the military or anything like that," Vincent said. "Our target are kids who are truly on the fence and have just made some poor choices that just need that second chance."

There are three such academies in California. Grizzly's territory covers the area from Santa Barbara County north to the Oregon border. 

Each class at Grizzly Youth Academy -- there are two per year -- has roughly 220 students, most of whom come from Bakersfield and San Jose. 

Vincent and Lt. Fermin Barbosa would like to see more local kids enrolled.

"There are 52 counties in California, and we get 46 of them," Vincent said. "The other programs can fill their seats just from L.A. County alone.

"Having seen the at-risk kids in Santa Maria as an educator, I think we’re underserving that community a lot," he said. "I want to give a little more emphasis on taking care of our own backyard."

Life at the academy

Grizzly students are treated a little differently than students at most charter schools. All attend the school by choice -- Vincent said it's "strictly voluntary."

When students are accepted, they are issued a uniform and boots. They have a wall locker, a bunk, a pillow and a blanket. They also get three meals a day, something many of them have never had before.

Because the school works to instill self-discipline, students have to earn virtually everything else, including salt and pepper for their food.

"It seems silly," Vincent said of the rule on condiments. "But when they finally earn it, their eggs are black because they want to put as much on as they can.

"When they get French fries and stuff, we do give them ketchup," he added. "We’re not completely heartless. But they learn to appreciate what they get."

In addition to the basics, each student is issued a Google Chromebook to do class assignments, and all the buildings at the academy have Wi-Fi.

The academy is undergoing a $3 million expansion with new classrooms. Administrators would also like to raise approximately $300,000 from local donors to create an athletic field.

"Because this is a residential facility, one of the key things that we have here that they don’t have out there in the world is that connection between school and home," said Paul Piette, school principal.

"It doesn’t exist at all like it does here. Here we have such close working relationships that we’re able to communicate everything."

Building on success

The Grizzly formula seems to work. The academy is third in the nation with a graduation rate around 96 percent. It retains more than 92 percent of its students from their first day through graduation -- tops in the nation.

Last year, 123 students, who before going the academy were not anywhere near on track for graduation, earned a high school diploma.

The cadets also performed more than 23,000 hours of community service.

When the current class graduates next month, 80 will earn their high school diplomas.

"We try to relate to them that people will treat you differently if you behave differently, if you dress differently, if you act differently," said Barbosa, deputy director of the academy. "They don’t believe that people will respect them. We try to instill that spirit of volunteerism in them."

The program has been so successful, Vincent is hoping to expand.

The academy is federally funded, so Vincent said its funding fluctuates from year to year. He is seeking $500,000 more in funding from local legislators to bring in more female cadets.

Each class is predominantly male, with roughly 160 boys and 60 girls. The barracks are available and the desire is there.

Last year Grizzly received 825 applications but could accept only 210 cadets.

"We have so many applicants we just cannot accommodate," Vincent said. "At $5,000 per kid that it's roughly going to cost the state to put them through, it’s money well spent."

Grizzly Youth Academy doesn't just get kids back on track. They make sure they stay there and become productive members of their communities. Support staff tracks the cadets long after graduation.

Vincent said they don't even measure success until a year after they're gone, and 88 to 90 percent "stay on the right path."

"When you consider they’re going back to their old environments, back to their old temptations, back to the same old sometimes dysfunctional homes and families, that’s one of the hardest lessons for the kids," Vincent explained.

"We tell them, 'You have changed so much in your time here, you need to understand and learn how to deal with the frustration you’ll have because the world hasn’t changed.'

"We do two home passes a year, and a lot of them couldn’t wait to get back here," he added. "They did not want to be around that old environment anymore."

Cardona is one of those kids who feels more comfortable at the academy than at home. He wants to stay at Grizzly after graduation in an independent studies program.

He also wants to help new cadets avoid the struggles he had.

"I don’t want to go back to the same stuff that was there in the past. I want to keep myself away from the bad stuff," said Cardona, who sees college and a career in the military in his future.

"Everything is possible. This academy helps a lot. It's going to be an experience you’ll always remember."

Nicasio said she had no clue about where she was headed in life before going to Grizzly, but she smiles widely when she talks about her plans now.

They include attending Hancock College, transferring to a university and then a career in the U.S. Marine Corps.

"Grizzly is great. It helps a lot of people out," she said. "I think kids should look forward to it. Even if they don’t see it, it will make a change in them."

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I cover Santa Barbara County.