Making a Difference West Edition

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Sunburst Youth Academy offers youth a second chance

The mission of the Sunburst Youth Academy is simple — to intervene in the lives of 16- to 18-year-old youth who are at risk of not completing high school. 

In order to do that, the program enhances life skills, education levels, employment potential and prospects for these youth, providing them the opportunity to obtain their high school diploma or return to high school.

More than an alternative high school, the academy’s signature Youth Challenge Program utilizes a military model that works to ensure that students understand they have the power within themselves to create the life they have always wanted.

“When these kids come to us, their lives have gotten a bit off track, but they know they can do better and they come here ready to do the work,” said Col. Denise Varner, program director. “They really dig deep while they are here and when they complete the program they feel such a deep sense of pride. For many, this is the first time they have ever completed anything, or the first time their mom has told them that they are proud of them. They really get to see what they are capable of. “

As part of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, the Youth Challenge Academy is run by the California National Guard in partnership with the Orange County Department of Education. The program has a 5 1/2 month residential phase and a post-residential 12-month mentoring phase. 

The one-on-one mentoring relationship provides young peoplewith the support they need to help them continue the positive successes and direction achieved during the challenge phase. Admission is voluntary and tuition is free. 

The program serves approximately 400 students per year. On average, participants advance four years in their English language skills and two years in their math skills. 

While military service is not required upon completion, students who participate in the program must meet military grooming standards, wear military type uniforms, and observe standard military customs and courtesies. 

“One of the things that makes our participants so successful, both during and after the program, is the structure we offer,” Col. Varner said. “We help them understand their potential and they just flourish. 

“We have a very high success rate. There was this one kid who was hired by a music producer and is now making six figures, another who is a minor league baseball player and another who is a pro wrestler.

“There is one story that sticks out for me in particular,” Col. Varner added. “We had a female graduate come back and talk to our kids at one of our graduation ceremonies and she had just graduated from the police academy. She was the only female who did not wash out of the program and she credited Sunburst, and the resilience that she learned in the program, with being the thing that set her apart from the other female candidates.”

In order to reinforce this resilience, the program utilizes eight core components that incudes academic excellence, leadership and followership, life coping skills, job skills, service to the community, responsible citizenship, health and hygiene and physical fitness. The program also has an arts component that allows youth to choose from 15 different ways they can express themselves.

And that is just the beginning.

The academy is introducing its Jobs Challenge program that will allow participants to return for another 5 1/2 month residential stay and attend Cypress Community College to acquire a college certificate in an area that will help them become more employable. 

It’s an added component that the program hopes will better position their students to reach self-sufficiency and succeed as productive citizens in society.

“What we do with our youth is really transformative,” Col. Varner said. “The beauty of this program is that people can see the changes in our students firsthand and how this program has improved their lives. We are always instilling in our students that if they can dream it, they can achieve it.” 

For more information about Sunburst Youth Academy, visit or call (877) 463-1921.

By Angela Nicole Parker

Contributing Writer