Hundreds of At-Risk Teens Make New Start

Hundreds of Mississippi teenagers are proving you're never too old or too young to start your life over again.

The National Guard Youth Challenge program takes in 16 to 18-year-olds who have either dropped out of school or are on the verge of it.

An estimated 200 teens graduated from the program Saturday.

Not so long ago the idea of wearing a cap and gown seemed like a far away dream that neither the young people nor their parents thought would ever happen.

"They didn't think I would make it. I didn't think I would make it," said Shawn Edward Henepeel of Gulfport. "I'm here now and, as you can tell, I made it. I'm a graduate."

The teens say the Youth Challenge Program's focus on academics and self-discipline has made a dramatic difference in how they see their lives.

"I hated everyone and everything. Now I love the world and I love myself," said Anna Nicole Goff of Vancleave

17 year-old Jessica Parker of Biloxi says being with other at-risk teens from across the state has taught her she's not the only young person who's made mistakes and deserves forgiveness.

"They accepted me and I accepted them for who they are not where they came from," said Parker

Perhaps happier than the graduates where the parents, grandparents and friends they left behind 22 weeks ago.

Francesca Parker is Jessica's mother. "

It was hard to let her go but it's something I knew she needed it. Now that she knows that I was trying to be the best mom that I could to raise her, this is the best thing I could have done for her to help her out," she said.

People here say while the graduation marks the end of the program it also means the start of something great.

"We've gotten back together closer like we were when she was a little girl," said Francesca Parker.

In the audience where members of the Joy Riders Christian Motorcycle Association which has been ministering to young people involved in the Youth Challenge Program for the past two years.

"I stayed in a lot of trouble when I was a teenager and it went on up through adult years. If telling them what I went through and how God changed me can help them through their life then that's all I want," said Club president Jeff Lepori.

Officials say most teenagers who complete the Youth Challenge program get their GED and many go on to college or the military.

The featured speaker was Congressman Chip Pickering.