High school student Christian Ortiz had been skipping classes and not doing his homework. He preferred playing soccer instead of attending school. His grades suffered, and so did he.
“I was heading in the wrong direction,” Ortiz said. “I was tired of being who I was.”
Ortiz was a La Habra Police Explorer and went to Sonora High School. As his grades began to slip, he was no longer allowed to participate in the Explorer program. Ortiz was ultimately transferred to a continuation school.
Senior Community Services Officer (CSO) Ken Gustin, lead advisor for the La Habra Police Department Explorers, saw great potential in Ortiz and guided him toward the Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy. The academy is a residential, quasi-military program designed to help teenagers mature, change negative behaviors and reclaim their lives.
The 16-year-old completed the rigorous 23-week program and was totally transformed. CSO Gustin and CSO Mario Velasquez, also an Explorers’ advisor, joined the 16-year-old’s family at the Sunburst commencement ceremony on June 8 at Cottonwood Church in Los Alamitos.
“(I’m) proud of him,” Gustin said. “He’s done really well for himself. We’re expecting more good things.”
As part of the North Orange County Public Safety Taskforce, Gustin learned about the regimented program at Sunburst. He figured it would be a good fit for Ortiz.
“He just needed some direction, discipline and instruction,” Gustin said. “Once Ortiz turned 16 he was eligible to attend the program. I spoke to him about it and got him enrolled, here he is today.”
At Sunburst, cadets sleep in barracks, wear military style uniforms, and observe military protocols.
When they’re not in the classroom, cadets do countless numbers of push-ups and run multiple miles.
Sunburst focuses on eight components: academics, leadership, life coping skills, job skills, community service, citizenship, physical fitness, and health and hygiene.
The first few weeks of the program were tough but things got easier as time went on, Ortiz said.
“It taught me so much,” Ortiz said. “It taught me mentally, physically, and academically.”
Ortiz got As and Bs in his classes and graduated with a GPA of 3.9.
Serving as mentors, Gustin and Velasquez regularly visited the Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy in Los Alamitos to meet with Ortiz and get updates on his progress.
“I’m very proud of him … very excited for him,” Velasquez said. “Waiting to see what the future has in store for him.”
Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, the U.S. representative for California’s 32nd District, was one of the keynote speakers at the Sunburst commencement ceremony.
“Do not use the past as a crutch,” Napolitano said. “Don’t let anybody tell you that because you have a past or because you were something else that you cannot succeed.”
The roughly 2,000 family members and supporters who attended the graduation also heard inspirational testimonies from the Sunburst students themselves.
Many had used drugs and were involved in antisocial behavior before finding their way to Sunburst.
“All of us came to Sunburst in search of change,” graduate Marisol Fabian said. “I am no longer the same female who would quit when times got rough. I am no longer sleepwalking through my life.”
Ortiz has set goals for the next phase of his life.
To help him along and keep him on track, CSOs Gustin and Velasquez will continue to mentor him as required by the Sunburst program for the next five months. This will be made much easier as Ortiz will remain an Explorer at the La Habra Police Department.
Ortiz is expected to graduate from Sonora High School in 2020. He wants to attend Rio Hondo College, where he plans to take criminal justice classes.
After college, Ortiz is torn. He either wants join the U.S. Air Force or pursue a career as a La Habra police officer.
“We are proud of Ken and Mario for mentoring Christian,” said Captain Adam Foster, who attended the graduation on behalf of La Habra Police Chief Jerry Price. “We’re thankful these kinds of opportunities are available and look forward to helping others in the future. They allow us to give back to the community, helping our kids build great character and a stronger future.”