Municipal Judge Tom Payne looked at the crowd at the USM auditorium in Long Beach and said "These young men and women have come to us, so that we could help them, and give them not only a future, but a hope".
Judge Payne is the director of the "Citizenship and Justice Academy", which was developed by Gulfport Municipal Court and USM. The program targets young people, between the ages of 16 and 21, who dropped-out of school or committed misdemeanor crimes.
19-year old Andi Meadows was expelled. Andi said "I had been going to Long Beach High School, and got kicked out for just drug-related reasons".
Andi enrolled in the "Citizenship and Justice Academy" at USM. Many other cadets were ordered by judges or counselors to sign-up for the program. For three months, they took civics classes, got their GED's, and completed 40-hours of community service.
On Friday, they achieved something they didn't think was possible. One by one, the cadets walked across the stage to receive their certificates, and walked away with a brighter outlook on life.
Meadows said "I pretty much got through it really well. I got me a job, and my GED and now I'm going to college. I'm really excited"!
Andi's mom Fritzi Presley was emotional when she saw her daughter not only receive her certificate, but also named an honor graduate. She said "I cried and cried. I'm so proud of her".
That sense of pride and achievement is inspiring the once troubled teens to become better citizens and future leaders. 21-year old Edward Foster said "There's no stopping now. I'm going to go all the way. Hopefully by next year sometime, I'd sure be going to college, thanks to this program".
The academy also helped the teens register to vote, get their driver's license, and find a job. Since the program is funded by the U-S Department of Labor, it's mainly for low-income families.