The night before inspection, Peter Thomas has no problem getting his cadets' attention.
"Here in this academy, is just like it is in combat. It's a no-nonsense mission that you're on."
Any nonsense they bring, he shuts down with a straight face.
"It's a tough love program and it has to be that way."
Tough love he's used to change the lives of challenged teens for 19 years. The tactic has helped him straighten up too.
"I was a little on the mischievous side. I challenged everything that you told me to do. I wanted to know why. So, when I look at the kids everyday, and talk with them, I can see myself in many of them."
Thirty-plus years ago, the smart-mouthed Jersey kid didn't know he'd trade in this uniform for this one. Thomas joined the army as a means to an end. He worked in the mortuary during Vietnam to pay for the funeral home he hoped to open one day.
"What really sparked me to thinking was that I saw some of my platoon leaders come through the mortuary. I realized my expertise was in the field."
After a long military career, he used that expertise to help open the Lincoln's Challenge Academy. Now, it's an award-winning, government-funded program which has helped more than 12,000 at-risk kids in Illinois put their best foot forward.
"When they first arrive here, their self-esteem is low. Their desire to excel is in a middle range. Now, there's someone telling them, 'you can be what you want to be, and whatever you decide to be, be the best in that field.'"
He says most of them will go to college and nearly half to the military. That is, if they pass inspection. Their boots shine the most when these cadets turn, and walk down the right path alongside Director Thomas.
"I survived on hope. I believed there was hope for tomorrow. Wherever I went, I said there will be a brighter day tomorrow. If we don't train them today to be the shining, bright light of hope for tomorrow, then we are failing in our mission."
Cadets graduating this year get their GED's on December 6. Thomas says they're in the process of building a new academy. He hopes to announce details on those plans by next year.
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