GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - They survived eight weeks of military drills and discipline that tested their physical, mental and emotional endurance. On Wednesday, 35 teens graduated from the Leadership Summer Academy at Bayou View Middle School in Gulfport. They felt a lot of pride as they celebrated this personal achievement.
They marched into the auditorium with pride in every step, ready to face the next challenge. The Leadership Summer Academy started off with 51 participants. Thirty-five teens toughed it out to reach this major milestone.
"It feels great, because last year, I was in the camp and I didn't finish it. I'm happy that I finished it this year," said 15-year-old Derek Watts.
The teens, ages 13 to 17, endured eight weeks of military-style training. They learned emergency response, life skills, teamwork, leadership and self-discipline.
"I'm used to the arts and crafts kind of camp, and this was different. There's a lot of exercises and different stuff, but it has taught me a whole bunch," said 13-year-old Nichole Seymour.
For the first time, the camp was operated by Gulfport School Resource Officers.
"It's rough. It gets tough. For some kids, it's different and new. So, what we've encouraged the kids is a lot of times, when you're faced with challenges, it's the best time to be strong and they pulled through," said camp facilitator James Griffin.
"We are disciplined. Like if we mess up, they'll make us do exercises like sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks. They don't let us get away with much," said Derek.
As the teens received their certificates, they reflected on how they have changed physically and emotionally. For instance, Nichole lost 12 pounds.
"I'm really happy that I made it through this whole eight weeks, and it's really exciting to be able to graduate," said Nichole.
"I'm happy, but it's kind of sad, because I've grown close to a lot of people who are here," said Derek.
"This is the part I love the most, the graduation, because you see their faces. You see those in the beginning who thought about quitting, who say to themselves, 'You know what, I'm proud of myself today.' And I'm proud of them as well," said Griffin.
Graduates of the free program are also certified in CPR and basic first aid. They had specialized training in emergency response, like how to prepare for a disaster and search and rescue. Plus, they heard from various speakers about bullying, peer pressure, having a positive attitude and exploring careers.
Registration for the next session will start in mid-May. That's when the Gulfport Police Department will distribute applications to area schools.