Submitted by Washington Military Department

Michael Perez was angry. He was lashing out at his parents, his brothers, his classmates. He was failing high school. Born with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, Perez says he was also in pain all the time, blaming the world for his condition.

Perez, who grew up in Puyallup, was about to drop out of Graham-Kapowsin High School when he learned about the Washington Youth Academy in Bremerton, a free quasi-military-type school that he says got his life back on track.

For 22 weeks, he endured grueling physical exercises and honed his academic skills. He succeeded and walked during commencement on Dec. 17, 2016. Now, he’ll graduate from high school on time and he says he’s feeling better than ever.

Michael Perez
Michael Perez of Puyallup shakes hands with Gov. Jay Inslee at commencement on Dec. 17. Perez is the 2,000th graduate of the Washington Youth Academy. Photo courtesy: Washington Military Department

“I’m trying to better my life and show my family I’m better than how I was,” he says. “I’ve accepted responsibility for all the things I’ve done bad and I’m moving forward.”

Perez was the 2000th cadet to graduate from the Youth Academy and one of the 149 cadets from the 2016-2 cycle.

Cadets from each corner of the state attend the free residential school geared at teaching teens discipline and helping them recover credits so they can go back to high school and earn a diploma or seek an alternative path to finish their high school education, such as a GED or by joining Running Start. The Washington Youth Academy is a division of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program.

Born with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, Perez says he’s been in pain for all of his life. The medical condition impacts all four limbs, which means it’s hard for him to walk or use his arms sometimes.

Michelle Perez, who is Michael’s mother, said there were concerns about Michael going to the Youth Academy, but he persevered completely. The Youth Academy also has medical staff that could assist Michael with any issues he had.

“They’d never had someone like me before,” Michael said.

His mom would send him notes during mail call, sometimes with a simple phrase: Just Keep Swimming – a phrase Dory the fish often said in the Disney movies “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory.”

“This proved to him that he could go to college, have a career, that anything was open to him,” Michelle added. “I am so proud of him.”

“This place is a challenge, but it’s a challenge with unbelievable people and they really care,” Michael Perez said. “They’re some of the most amazing people in the world.”

Perez doing pushups
Michael Perez does pushups with his cadre after commencement on Dec. 17. Photo courtesy: Washington Military Department

He notes that a speech by Commandant Chris Acuña really stuck with him, where the commandant compared each cadet to swords.

“When you come here, you’re an ore of iron,” Michael Perez said. “They put you in a furnace and they pound you and pound you and pound you until you’re a beautiful blade. With that weapon in my hand, with me, I can slay any dragon that comes my way.”

He added that if he can succeed at the Youth Academy, it proves anyone can: “This is a very good place. Just don’t quit. You need to find the strength in your heart to realize this place will make you better in the long run.”

Other South Sound teens who graduated as part of the 2016-2 cycle include Nolan Schwab of Puyallup, who attends Graham-Kapowsin High Schooll Blake Hunsperger of Sumner, who attends Bonney Lake High School; and Tacoma residents Lovely Bradford and Christian Reim, who return to Stadium High School; Claudio Diaz, who goes to Spanaway High School; Alejandra Estrada of Lincoln High School; John Fetui of Fife High School; Taumaia Savai’inaea and Shyhem Witcher-Shabazz, who both return to Foss High School; Anita Velazquez Rosas of Franklin Pierce as well as Erikah Morris and Richard Oeun, who return to Oakland High School. Also graduating were Spanaway residents Chrystol Guzman-Salazar and Cedric Lewis, who both return to Spanaway Lake High School.

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