COAL TOWNSHIP - Everyone has an opportunity to change for the better.

That was the central thought Tuesday whenNorthwestern Academy opened its doors to the community for graduation and a tour of facilities.

Two students graduated after completing VCORE - Vocationally Educating Cadets on Responsibility Through Empowerment, a 120-day program that utilizes a military model "with an empathetic approach."

"I believe we provide the frame of reference that allows our young people to see that life offers opportunities to change," Jesse Moore, head teacher at Northwestern, said in his address to some 100 students, family members, staff and other visitors gathered in the VCORE building for the ceremony. "We, as individuals, cannot give them anything. We must teach them to see it for themselves and to claim the amazing opportunities that life presents them with as their own."

Moore told the audience the change "doesn't occur in pretty little packages.

"It is difficult. It hurts, but if we have the right focus of control, we can see that all these challenges that have been set for us are just hurdles - hurdles that are training us to jump much higher in the future," he said.

The two graduates, who prepare to return home having completed their time at the academy, spoke of their experiences and how "hard work pays off and you can succeed." They thanked all the staff members and teachers who helped them through a tough time in their lives, directed them to proper ways of life and allowed them to gain confidence in themselves.

Following graduation, guests were offered tours and demonstrations at facilities around the academy grounds, including at the building trades and culinary arts programs.

Jim Sharp, executive director at Northwestern Academy, was on hand for the activities.

"The open house is an opportunity to share with the community and juvenile justice stake holders the work that we do and that the youth does every day," Sharp said. "We can show their efforts toward progress."

'Challenge by choice'

One of the highlights of the open house was the indoor ropes course demonstration in the Secure Services building. Students work together to accomplish their goals through a "challenge by choice," an introduction to the concept of individual rights and responsibilities. It requires students to step out of their comfort zones and learn to trust fellow students as one ascends the approximately 25-foot high netted rope to the ceiling. The climber wears a harness and the other students hold onto the rope attached to it as he makes his climb.

When all four of the students completed their climbs, each received applause from those in attendance. They then gathered in a circle for a "debriefing" where they shared their observations of the experience and how it can be transformed into a life-learning experience.

New view

At the conclusion of his speech, Moore had challenged those in attendance to learn from their experience, too, and to see Northwestern in a different light.

"When you leave this place, I ask that you look with my eyes, see what I see," he said. "See the mission and vision of this place at work, not just with our staff, but in the hearts of the young people that we serve as they face the opportunities that life gives them through a different set of lenses."

As he concluded his speech, he put on a pair of sunglasses to illustrate his point.