Troubled teen turns life around with help of deputy, Sunburst Academy

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Junior Mendez, with the help of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Jerry Ambriz, will graduate from the Sunburst Academy.

It's a time of new beginnings for cadets graduating from Sunburst Academy. Among the 200 teens who made it through the camp was 17-year-old Junior Mendez from East Los Angeles.

Junior never imagined he would find himself at the paramilitary style program at the National Guard Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos.

At just 12 years old, Junior led police on a chase while under the influence.

"It went really bad," Junior said. "I was not going to school, I was doing drugs."

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Jerry Ambriz said by age 16, Junior was both lost and hardened by struggles on the streets, at school and at home.

Ambriz tried to guide him through a sheriff's program called Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives, or VIDA.

But Junior said he hated it and quit. Ambriz warned him about a life of crime.

"I promised we would meet up again," Ambriz said.

The turning point came within months. Junior said he grew tired of disappointing his family.

"I felt humiliated and I felt I was humiliating them too," he said.

Junior made it through VIDA on his second attempt. Buoyed by success, Junior set his sights on Sunburst Academy, which the Army National Guard runs.

It's five and a half months of physical, academic and emotional challenges. Junior called on Ambriz to be his mentor.

"I told him I needed help, I needed support because I didn't really have much support," Junior said.

The program was more rigorous than he imagined.

"You just want to quit, but something tells you to keep going. I just kept going," he said.

Junior, on the verge of graduating, has a new outlook on his future.

"It makes me feel proud that I could do it. No one is going to hold me back now," Junior said.
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schoolmilitarynational guardLos AlamitosOrange County
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