Drive-by, mortal fear changed a teen thug

Jonathan Montanez, an 18-year-old former gang member, is now tyring to get into college and the U.S. Air Force after his December graduation from the Florida National Guard Youth Challenge Academy.

Knight Ridder Tribune
Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 10:10 p.m.
Six months ago, 18-year-old Jonathan Montanez was dealing drugs at his high school and buying stolen guns for gang fights and robberies.
That all changed one night when he was smoking with some friends on the street. Members of a rival gang drove by, opening fire on the group.
Montanez escaped with only a scratch on his face from broken glass, but left with a new outlook on life.
Now Montanez, once known as "Smokey-D" and "Disciple Crazy" for his marijuana habits and attitude, is class president and valedictorian of his group at the Florida National Guard Youth Challenge Academy.
"The one night I almost lost my life, I said no more and came here," Montanez said.
Montanez, along with 115 other teenagers, graduated Dec. 12 from the program for high school drop-outs. Now he is applying to colleges and the U.S. Air Force, he said.
"There is a lot of positive reinforcement and people pushing you the right way," he said of the program that helped turn his life around.
The National Guard Youth Challenge Academy is a 17-month program that helps teens earn their high school diploma or GED and also gives them job training and life skills, like lessons on how to balance a check book and get through a job interview.
For the first 5 months, the students live at Camp Blanding. Living on the base keeps them focused on school and free of distractions.
"At first, there was no contact whatsoever, only through letters for the first two weeks," said Montanez's mother, Nilsa Borges-Cruz of Miami.
After the students receive their diploma, they leave the base and go on to college, the army, or find a job. With the help of their parents, the students chose a mentor with whom they meet on a weekly basis for the next year.
Students are accepted into the program from all over Florida, but they must apply and write an essay on why they want to attend.
"Jonathan wrote a very emotional essay just asking for help," Borges Cruz said. "He knew he needed to change and leave this area in order for him to succeed."
About 150 students are enrolled in a class every six months and about 115 graduate, said admissions coordinator Hawthrone Herbert.
"The concept is basically taken from the old military basic training environment but it's not a boot camp," Herbert said. "Our No. 1 priority is education."
And Montanez said the strict environment and rules helped keep him focused on his school work.
"Here, basically you are separated from any distractions," he said. "If you get to talk to a girl for two minutes you are lucky."
His mother agreed. "I knew that he could do it, that he had the potential to succeed, I just didn't know that he could go so far," she said.
Montanez was born in Chicago and lived with his mother, stepfather, younger brother and sister. At the age of 12, his family moved to South Florida where he found a group of friends he felt he fit in with - a gang.
He was heavily into drugs, sold guns and had been arrested for fighting at South Broward High School. After being questioned for a shooting, Montanez said he was pulled aside by a police officer who told him about the program.
"I just filled out the application for my mom," he said, adding he had no intentions of attending.
Montanez was accepted into the program but did not decide to attend until after the night he was shot at and began fearing for his life.

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