“If it wasn’t for you I’d probably be dead right now,” Braydon Foster wrote in a Dec. 3 letter to Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman.
Braydon, 16, wrote that he was roaming the streets, skipping school and selling marijuana less than a year ago, and in February he will start college where he will learn to be a welder.
“I couldn’t have done any of this without your help,” he wrote. “I just want to tell you that you have made a difference in my life. A couple months ago I hated you with a passion because I didn’t realize that by you sending me away it really helped me.”
After Foster had been in and out of juvenile detention and house arrest nearly 10 times, Stedman gave him the option of either going to jail until he was 18 or attending the Youth ChalleNGe Academy, a state-funded military-style program at Fort Stewart near Savannah that is sponsored by the Georgia National Guard. The academy was recommended to Braydon’s family by his counselors at Campbell High School and it was brought to the judge as a possibility for keeping him out of jail.
At first, Braydon said he was reluctant to go. But his mother, Shawn Partridge, said Stedman didn’t give him much choice.
“He thought, ‘We have A, B, C and D to choose from,’ but we didn’t,” said Partridge, who raised Braydon as a single mother. “She said he has A or B.”
So he went to Youth ChalleNGe Academy in July. Each day, students rise at 5 a.m. and take three-minute showers. Every Friday, they get a “buzz” haircut. When Braydon graduated from Youth ChalleNGe Academy on Saturday, he said he was one of 212 of the more than 300 students to make it through. And 500 people had applied.
“Everybody sleeps in big barracks with 50 other dudes, military style,” he said. “Just think like you see on TV where they wake you up screaming in your face.”
Along with the military experience, the program also allows students to simulate high school and earn their GED, something Braydon took advantage of.
“It’s like boot camp with education,” said Partridge’s fiancé, Allen Roberts. “But with the effect that they know they’re cared for.”
Now free and clear of high school, he plans to start a path toward a career as an underwater welder in February, when he enrolls in Fortis College near the intersection of Cobb Parkway and Windy Hill Road.
He also plans to work at the home inspection business owned by his mother and Roberts.
Stedman joked that Braydon will soon make more money than her. She said it made her day to receive the letter from Foster. She placed it behind her bench, where she puts reminders of the good part of the job.
“It truly reminds you of why you do the work,” she said. “When the days are really bad, the Braydons of the world remind you that they might be able to turn things around.”
Stedman was at Braydon’s home near Campbell Sunday evening for a welcome home party. She said the cases like his are the ones that keep her going.
“You usually don’t deal with the child a lot, but the family has been dealing with the crisis,” she said. “When they get to us, there are so many issues that you are the last resort.”
Attending the Youth ChalleNGe Academy turned things around for Braydon, and he would advise others in his situation, or their parents, to do the same thing.
“Find a way out of it,” he said. “The mindset I had, nothing would have changed my mind.”