A teen who got busted for driving with a suspended license sat in row one. A shoplifter was in row two. Yet when Gulfport judge Tom Payne looked out toward the audience, he saw future community leaders, not 16-21 year old criminals.
"We have a group of young men and women in the Citizenship and Justice Academy who have tremendous potential, " the judge said.
The academy he helped set up harnessed that potential. It was established by Gulfport and USM to work with teens who were heading down the wrong path.
Ernest Cole was one of those teens. He committed a misdemeanor simple assault and was on probation.
"Before I had no self confidence," Cole said. "I didn't know what my dreams were. I didn't know what my goals are. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life."
That's not the case anymore. Cole worked hard to earn a hug from his mother, an academy certificate, and a new lease on life.
"I've got self confidence, self motivation. I've got people helping me, keeping my standards and my confidence high," he said.
Cole's mom took a picture of her more confident son, so she could cherish the day he rediscovered life. Tears flowed down her face when she used to words joy and happiness top describe what this day meant to her family.
The day was the Citizenship and Justice Academy's first graduation. Twenty one teens walked across the stage at USM Gulf Coast to receive an academy certificate. Dr. Shelby Thames was on hand to congratulate each graduate.
To get to this point, the cadets had to work toward their GED diploma. They also had to learn skills to either get a job or go to college. And they had to participate in 40 hours of community service.
Lafonte Washington was part of the graduating class.
"They said they was trying to help me out," he said. "So I came here to get out of trouble."
Astrin Tillman actually completed her community service commitment one week after giving birth to a baby boy.
"I want to set a good example for my child," she said.
On the streets back home, these teens learned about crime. And that landed them in trouble with the law. The academy taught them about life's rewards. Graduation day symbolized their return to productivity.
A grant from the U.S. Department of Labor pays for the academy. Right now, Gulfport is the only city sending teens who committed misdemeanor crimes to the program. But later this year, it may be expanded so other cities can take advantage of it.