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Tualatin teen finds new route to success

Oregon Youth Challenge Program helps 17-year-old Brandy Mercado reclaim her future

If Brandy Mercado hadn’t spent five months at a former military base in Oregon’s high desert, she’s positive she’d be doing her senior year of high school again.

During her junior year at Tualatin High School, Mercado’s mother had been the first to suggest that she attend the Oregon Youth Challenge Program, and her councilor confirmed that without it, she would likely not graduate. So in July, the then soon-to-be TuHS senior moved toPhoto Credit: TIMES PHOTO: LACEY JACOBY - In December, Tualatin resident Brandy Mercado, 17, graduated from the Oregon Youth Challenge Program, an alternative high school modeled off of military academies. Bend, away from everyone she knew, and began 5 1/2 months of grueling work, ultimately graduating from the program in December.

“Sometimes it was fun,” the 17-year-old said. “(But) you have bad days. There are really bad days where you’re just depressed, you’re angry, you want to go home. You’re like, ‘I’m done; I want to quit; let me go home.’ But you just, you can’t. You stay quiet and do what you have to do.”

By doing what she had to do, Mercado left the program with 9 1/2 high school credits, getting her much closer to her goal of graduating in June than she would have been by taking classes at TuHS. For the first few years of her high school career, Mercado said she wasn’t as focused as she should have been, which led to her failing a number of classes. By the time she signed up for OYCP, her other options would have been to stay at TuHS an additional year, go through a different credit recovery program, or drop out.

“I had a lot of distractions, because I wasn’t focused on me. I was focused on hanging out with friends, doing stupid things, not actually knowing what I wanted to do with my life, you know?” she said. “I wasn’t taking high school seriously. It was just like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna get through it.’ (OYCP) gave me an actual vision of adulthood and how serious it actually is, and what I’m going to do. Because I’m not going to be living with my mom forever.”

OYCP, which is run through the National Guard, is extremely structured and targeted to youth who have dropped out, are at risk for dropping out or are failing high school. According to Mercado and fellow graduate Daniel Labunsky, 18, the cadets were pushed to their limits and constantly working on strict schedules without the option of goofing off. Whatever vices had distracted them before were taken away and replaced with a regimen of academics, exercise and community service.

“You’re constantly under some kind of pressure. I got my high school diploma while I was there, and I was really stressed out the whole time because I was like, ‘My life depends on this,’” said Labunsky, a Lake Oswego resident. “I really did not expect to get through it. I really didn’t. The whole time, I was like, ‘They’re going to get me for something.’ But you really learn.”

During their time as cadets with OYCP, the students were in classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, followed by intense workout routines. Each morning, their (sleeping areas) were checked to make sure everything was pristine and in order. On weekends, they did community service with the exception of rare hikes. When they ate meals, no one was allowed to look around. And of course, they wore uniforms.

“It was hard to get used to the routine. You’re not used to people in your face telling you what to do and how to do it,” Mercado said. “I kind of imagined the worst. I wasn’t thinking it was going to be light, you know — it’s military. I was expecting the attitude that they were giving, but living there is different than imagining it.”

Though the program was especially difficult at times, Mercado graduated with a 4.0 GPA and a new outlook on how she sees her future. She proved herself to the friends and family members who didn’t think she could do it, and even proved herself wrong on the days that she most wanted to quit.

“To watch her graduate, I wanted to have a blow horn and to yell and scream ‘That’s my daughter! That’s my cadet graduating! That’s my Brandy,’” said Mercado’s mom, Maria Calzada. “I was happy. I cried out of joy, out of watching my daughter graduate. I will never, ever, ever forget it.”

This week, Mercado began what she hopes is her last term at TuHS since she still needs five credits to graduate. She’ll also be doing credit recovery to get back some of the credits for classes that she previously failed. If all goes well, she’ll graduate on time in June and then attend Portland Community College in the fall.

“(I have) that mindset of ‘I’m going to,’” Mercado said. “You have to be determined, because if you’re not, then what are you going to do with yourself?”


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