HILO, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Every year on Oahu, about 400 youths between the ages of sixteen and eighteen apply for a residential education program that's held by the Hawaii National Guard in Kalaeloa. Now, Big Island at-risk students are about to get the same chance.
Down a nineteen mile stretch of road outside of Hilo, sits a guarded compound. For years, the facility served as a prison for those whose lives had turned for the worse. Thursday, Governor Linda Lingle and legislators were on hand to rededicate the grounds for a new purpose.
The former Kulani Correctional Facility has been transformed into a learning center for at-risk youth.
In September, the property was handed over to the Department of Defense. Major Pam Ellison of the Hawaii National Guard said, "We want to give them the skill set to be work ready. They can give back to the community so that it comes full circle."
The decision was then made to use the compound by the Hawaii National Guard's Youth Academy Challenge program. This will be the second facility of its kind. The first is located at Kalaeloa on Oahu.
Prison guards have been replaced by cadre leaders they will use discipline training similar to military boot camp, including 5 a.m. morning reveille.
Ellison said, "They will live in barracks, with beds and lockers."
The academy is part of a wider system of outreach put on by the Guard. A group of around one hundred teens will arrive at the beginning of next year. The compound will host two groups annually.
"The cadre staff will be with the students twenty-four-seven for five and half months," Ellison explained.
In order to intervene and make a difference in the short amount of time, the Department of Defense sponsored program uses a stricter regiment to instill their message.
Program director, Rick Campbell said, "Most youth are looking for guidance and parameters. They're able to grow and think and work together."
The quasi-military program removes the bars from the windows for a positive learning experience.
The program is federally funded and costs just over six million dollars a year to maintain. The National Guard says they have graduated over three thousand cadets since 1994. One graduate of the academy in Kalaeloa, Ricki Sabrong, says it made an important change in his life. "I know that without youth challenge I would still be doing the same reckless, wrong things today if I wasn't in the program."
Big Island residents have raised concerns as to what will be done with an additional 64 hundred acres of unused land at the campus. State officials are working with the Department of Defense to designate the lands for preservation purposes.