PRYOR — Robert Clemons, 16, has already lost both parents.
He was 8 when his mother died in a car accident. He said his father died three years later.
“I’ve been house to house ever since,” Clemons said.
Stability, or at least 22 weeks worth of it, is within his grasp.
Instead of attending classes this semester with fellow sophomores at Rush Springs High School, Clemons is more than 200 miles away. He’s living out of a duffle bag in a barracks, surrounded by strangers instead of his friends, because he wants to change his life.
Clemons was among 143 boys and girls ages 16 to 18 who reported for processing Jan. 15 at Thunderbird Youth Academy in Pryor.
Thunderbird Youth Academy?
Isn’t that where the bad kids go?
Director John Altebaumer hears that all the time. And, when he does, he shifts into perception-busting mode. He said Thunderbird doesn’t have “bad kids.”
Are there kids at the academy who have encountered issues at past schools or are dealing with personal challenges? Sure. But Altebaumer said kids are not sent to Thunderbird by the court system.
Not all of Thunderbird’s kids are troubled. Some are “legacy” students whose families value the Thunderbird experience so much they keep sending relatives. But, for those kids who are troubled, the goal is for Thunderbird to give them the discipline and tools they need to tackle life when they return home.
Twice-a-year sessions last 22 weeks. The Tulsa World was granted campus access for a series of stories that will appear during the current session, which is scheduled to conclude with a June 17 graduation ceremony. The intent of the series is to “put a face” on Thunderbird Youth Academy, a military school that is part of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program.
Clemons is among the “faces.” He said he posted failing grades in school last semester and has been getting into trouble. He said it wasn’t “big trouble,” but his stumbles made him realize he was headed down the wrong path.
“I want to make something out of myself,” he said. “What I want to do is I want to go to college and play football, but I know I can’t do that if my grades aren’t good. And I can’t do that if I keep on getting in trouble. I have been kicked out of a lot of houses, and I kept on hurting people in the process of me doing stuff I knew was wrong. I don’t want to do that anymore.”
‘I believe in him’
Processing day is an emotional one at Thunderbird Youth Academy. There were hugs, tears and follow-up hugs in a designated area where parents said goodbye to their children.
If kids gut it out and stick around, they won’t see their mothers and fathers until about seven weeks have passed.
Are students permitted to quit? Yes. “But usually the parents don’t let them,” Altebaumer said.
Because Thunderbird Youth Academy is the only academy of its kind in Oklahoma, parents from all over the state drive their children to Pryor for the current session.
James Heston transported the parent-less Clemons to the academy.
Heston has known the teen for about two years. The relationship was forged because Heston’s son and Clemons are sports teammates. Heston became Clemons’ guardian three weeks before shepherding him to Thunderbird. Heston is in the Oklahoma Army National Guard and knew about the academy’s program and benefits.
Clemons was receptive when Heston pitched Thunderbird to him.
Asked if Clemons is a good kid, Heston said, “Yes. I believe in him. I strongly do. That’s part of Robert’s (problem). He has had a lot of people try to help him out, and they stopped believing in him. He’s a teenager. He makes teenage mistakes. Robert is willing to try to correct some of those past mistakes and move forward.”
After the hugs ended, parents and guardians were taken to a room where they wrote letters to be given to their children the following day. Phone calls are a no-no for the first two weeks of the program. Letters are the only form of communication between parents and students.
“Just because (the kids) don’t write you back doesn’t mean they don’t very much enjoy the letters they are receiving, because every night they sit down and read letters,” counselor Jeannie Cale told students’ families. “Some of them, it’s just so awkward for them to write. They are texters.”
Meanwhile, the director chose parting words meant to put families at ease.
“I understand what you are feeling right now,” Altebaumer said. “You’re going, ‘I just turned my child over to a bunch of people and I have no idea who they are.’ I understand that. Understand that the program has been going for 24 years. We’ve got an idea of what we are doing.”
Altebaumer told the parents he knows they just endured a significant emotional moment. And, speaking of significant emotional moments, their children were being treated to a different kind of emotional moment in a building across the street.
“They are getting introduced to the military lifestyle,” Altebaumer said.
Whole new world
The first two weeks at the academy are like basic training. Classes don’t begin until basic training is completed.
“We put them in a very, very structured environment,” Altebaumer said. “They will learn how to live a military life.”
A typical day once classes begin: Wake up at 5 a.m. Physical fitness training for 45 minutes to an hour. Breakfast. Barracks maintenance. Classes from 8 a.m. to noon. Lunch (no speaking in the dining facility; you’re there to eat, not chat). Classes from 1-3 p.m. More physical fitness training. Dinner. Evening activities (tech school and church are among options). Bedtime is 9 p.m.
While on campus, there are no cellphones, no televisions, no radios and no money (it just causes problems). Students are restricted to campus unless granted a pass.
Ready or not, students immediately enter a whole new world. After detaching from parents, they are told to line up against a wall. Leaning on the wall will get you scolded. Small groups of students are marched single file — eyes straight ahead, no talking — to a building where they are issued a duffel bag of Thunderbird apparel. There is no need for “civilian” clothes here.
New students go through a “shakedown” inspection. Translated, they dump their personal belongings onto the floor so Thunderbird staffers can confiscate unapproved items and send the items home with parents. Clemons got to keep sheets of paper with phone numbers and addresses. He didn’t like giving up his necklace with a gold cross. It was a gift from his grandmother.
The necklace wasn’t the only thing Clemons temporarily lost.
Clemons lost his name. “You no longer have first names,” a sergeant told students. “Your name is candidate now.” (Candidates can graduate to cadet after two weeks.)
And Clemons, like other male students, lost his hair. After changing into Thunderbird gear, candidates waited in a hallway for a turn in Bridget McCoy’s barber chair.
“Look down for me,” she said, using a zero clipper to shear off clumps of hair.
“There is one shorter,” she said. “But one shorter is kind of bald.”
Some students (about 20 in nine years, according to a Thunderbird staffer) balk at getting their hair cut. McCoy doesn’t get involved in persuasion. She leaves that to others.
Candidates were urged to read cadet handbooks while waiting for haircuts and other first-day occurrences. Things are probably going to go well for those who actually read the handbook, and things are probably not going to go well for those who just look at the pages.
Among those who escorted candidates to their first taste of military life was clad-in-fatigues Kendall Nolting, 25.
Nolting is a 2010 Thunderbird graduate. The academy was a life-changer for him.
“I wouldn’t say I was a bad kid, but I was definitely a brat,” he said. “It just opened up my eyes to a different world. I got recruited out of here and joined the National Guard.”
Thunderbird does not funnel students into the military, but many graduates enter the military. Nolting met his wife, Ximena, when they were Thunderbird students. Now they have four children. He was serving in Afghanistan when his first child was born. He watched the birth on Skype.
Doing what’s best
Light mist was in the air as Clemons and other male candidates stood outside Sanford Hall. They read cadet handbooks as fellow candidates took turns going inside to be issued boots.
Not everyone who was handed boots will take every step.
Altebaumer said Thunderbird has a 70 to 75 percent retention rate. Sessions start with 150 students selected through a screening process. Usually, between 110 and 120 graduate.
“It’s just like the military,” he said. “Some people just aren’t made for this type of environment. And we have to accept that fact.”
Said deputy director Chris Stout: “If we can get them through the next two weeks, they typically stick it out.”
Clemons was nervous before beginning the program. Asked what he will miss, he said, “I’m probably going to miss ice cream. That’s the only sweets I eat. I’m probably going to miss sports a little bit. I will miss track season, and my girlfriend. But this is what’s best for me, and I have to get it done.”
Clemons expressed confidence that he can complete the program. He said he likes competition. This is sort of a competition, but the stakes are higher than a sporting event.
“This,” Clemons said, “is going to turn me around.”
One week down, 21 to go.