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State Budget Cuts Hit Thunderbird Youth Academy Program

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The court ordered program for at risk youth at Thunderbird Academy is endangered. The court ordered program for at risk youth at Thunderbird Academy is endangered.
Thunderbird Academy received notice that the state could no longer to fund the at-risk youth program. Thunderbird Academy received notice that the state could no longer to fund the at-risk youth program.
Cassie Cariker is now in the volunteer program at Thunderbird, but she says the court ordered program made a difference in her life. Cassie Cariker is now in the volunteer program at Thunderbird, but she says the court ordered program made a difference in her life.

By Craig Day, The News On 6

TAHLEQUAH, OK -- Oklahoma budget cuts are impacting a program for at risk teens. The State Office of Juvenile Affairs is pulling its funding for a court mandated program for troubled teens at the Thunderbird Youth Academy.

That means kids who usually could get the structure and discipline they need at the Pryor campus, may not have anywhere else to turn.

At the Thunderbird Youth Academy, there are two programs: one voluntary, the other where courts require troubled teens to go.

Find out more about the Thunderbird Youth Academy.

The current students may be the last to attend the court mandated program. The State Office of Juvenile Affairs is pulling its $1.3 million in funding.

"There's a lot of concern, confusion and heartbreak that is involved in seeing a program like this shut down," said Cherie Miller Stierwalt, Director.

In a letter to the Oklahoma Military Department, the State Office of Juvenile Affairs says the decision is based on the state budget shortfall.

"This program instills integrity, citizenship, leadership, gives them an opportunity to have some self dignity, learn some skills that they would never learn in the home environments they were ever in."

Cassie Cariker, who was 13 when she came to the court ordered program, says it makes a difference in young lives.

"I was very upset that I had to come here, but once I came here, it made me wake up and just realize it is a great program," said Cassie Cariker, Taqlequah resident. "It encouraged me to do better in life."

There are three 16-week sessions a year, with 30 students in each one. Funding runs out December 1, with the program closing and 30 employees losing their jobs at the end of the year.

"This is an alternative to incarceration," said Director Cherie Miller Stierwalt. "It allows us to give them those skills so that they become law abiding citizens.  Good citizenship skills, good leaders, good employees for the communities that they live in."

As for Cassie Cariker, she's now in Thunderbird's voluntary program. She hopes a funding solution can be found.

"Most kids if they didn't have this, they would never have a chance in life," Cariker said.

It's important to point out again, that Thunderbird's voluntary program will remain open. The budget cut only affects the court mandated part of the program.

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