CHARLESTON, Maine — Zachary was 14 years old when his father died, a deep loss that sent the young man into depression followed by years of bad choices.
He said Friday that he began drinking and experimenting with drugs, ultimately putting so much stress on his mother that she suffered a severe heart attack. From there Zachary’s downfall accelerated until he ended up in his late teens at Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston.
On Friday, Zachary was tossing his graduation cap into the air with eight other young men in celebration of reaching his first great milestone — that of earning his General Equivalency Degree. Four others, who have been released from the facility, also earned their diplomas but were not in attendance.
“Earning my GED took a lot of hard work and long hours,” Zachary said Friday before an auditorium filled with family, friends, development center staff, Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte and Department of Corrections Associate Commissioner Barry Stoodley.
Zachary’s stay at the facility helped turn his life around, he said, making him realize there is more to life. “After earning my GED, I realize I don’t have to stop here. There are so many opportunities out there; I would be a fool to stop now.”
Zachary’s story is similar to those of the other graduates, who worked through their emotions to educate their minds for a better future.
Cheryl Quinn, principal of the development center’s school, welcomed the students and their families. Quoting the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,’’ she thanked the teachers who provided instruction and guidance, and the remainder of the staff who supported the students in their goals.
About 300 students have earned their GED or high school diploma since the development center’s inception, Eric Hansen, the facility’s superintendent, said Friday. Many of those students never thought it possible, he noted.
Ponte credited Stoodley, who was among a group of people who had a vision years ago. He and the others developed that vision into the state’s leading juvenile corrections system despite naysayers who thought such a system would be too easy on troubled juveniles, Ponte said.
“The proof is in the pudding,” the corrections commissioner said as he congratulated the students. He also credited the staff members for their efforts.
“The staff work real hard at what they do, and this is the end result of their work; this is their successes,” Ponte said. “We don’t succeed at everything we do, but this is clearly a proud moment for everybody.”
That pride was evident in the eyes of Mark and Chantal Levesque, who traveled from Scarborough to see their son Dominic receive his GED. “His life has been turned around since he got here,” his mother said Friday. His stepfather said Dominic had been involved in drugs and couldn’t stand school at all, yet at Mountain View he has been a model student. “We believe that our prayers have been answered,” his mother added.
Kirk, another student who graduated Friday, also believes his prayers have been answered. He said he was raised in a good environment but his clown antics got him into trouble at school. His studies fell behind, and he began to make some bad choices, Kirk said. He said he stole a car and a couple of dirt bikes and then found himself on the run.
While on the lam, Kirk said, he started thinking about what he was doing and how he was hurting the people he loved, so he turned himself in and owned up to the mistakes he had made. The development center gave him the opportunity to change his outlook.
“When I finished working on my GED, it gave me motivation with a feeling of accomplishment and a sense to really strive for my dreams,” Kirk said.
“Thank you,” he said, a comment repeated many times Friday by the young men as they hugged family members and staff.