Kennedy Krieger High School student Jeremy Holmes had two dreams after graduating in 2013: visiting Hawaii and following his father's footsteps to stand alongside U.S. Marines.
On Sunday, both dreams will be realized early, when Holmes boards a plane to Hawaii with four of his classmates to take part in ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The students are part of the Central Maryland Young Marines Unit at Kennedy Krieger High School, a national youth program offered at the non-public school that serves special-education students referred from school districts across the region.
The Baltimore-based Kennedy Krieger hosts the only unit in the nation that is composed solely of students will special needs and is based in a special-education school. Since 1993, the school has hosted the program sponsored by the Marine Corps League, which includes 300 units with 10,000 students in 46 states, the District of Columbia, Germany and Japan.
"I want to represent veterans who fought in the war and show that I appreciate them doing it," said Holmes, who suffers from traumatic brain injury and has reached the rank of lance corporal in the program. "I want to see my dream."
Like Holmes, a resident of Havre de Grace who survived a 2002 car crash that killed his brother, students in the high school's 28-person Young Marines unit face a variety of obstacles. Kennedy Krieger officials say students do not lack drive and determination.
"It's a little bit nerve-racking, but I'll make it because you can do anything you put your mind to," said Sgt. Cornell Wright, 17, of Glenn Dale, who has been diagnosed with an intellectual disability and wants to follow his uncle into the Air Force. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Accompanying the students will be their commander and the program's coordinator, 1st Sgt. Vivian Price-Butler, a decorated 26-year veteran of the Marine Corps, who retired in 2004 after her last tour in Iraq.
Price-Butler, who has been with the program since 2000, said she hopes the trip will be sobering but encouraging for the students, who also make annual visits to recovering veterans and spend the night at military bases.
"I wanted to be in the military since I was 14, so I try to instill in them that they can be anything they want to be," said Price-Butler. "Like when this opportunity came along — I wasn't going to say that just because this was the special-education group, we can't go. I do have high standards, and I don't put any limits on them."
On Thursday, before packing their fatigues and equipment for the trip, the students talked about what excited them most about participating in the Pearl Harbor commemoration.
"It will let me go back in history," said 16-year-old Lance Cpl. Bob Noles of New Windsor, who has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and wants to be a naval aviator.
"It will be another experience that will go into the book of life," said Cpl. Robert Lipscomb, a 16-year-old from Clinton who also has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
Lance Cpl. Curt Moore, a 16-year-old from Glenn Dale with the same disorder, responded enthusiastically: "Hawaii."
While only five students will go on the trip — chosen after an extensive process examining their educational success and limitations — all 28 students in the unit pitched in to help raise funds for the trip, and a collective pride pervaded the students' classroom Thursday as the student ambassadors prepared for their journey. The students will participate in the color guard, marching in a parade and taking part in a wreath ceremony.
The national mission of the Young Marines Program is to provide students ages 8 through high school with a program that promotes a healthful and drug-free lifestyle.
The program does not emphasize military preparation, like JROTC programs, and is built into students' academic schedules.
Officials at Kennedy Krieger said the program's mission goes hand in hand with the school's task of preparing students with the tools they need — discipline, self-sufficiency, respect and leadership.
On Thursday, students answered every question with "Yes ma'am," responded to Price-Butler's warm instructions with the same urgency as a barked command, and at the close of class stood at attention before the first sergeant solicited the traditional Marine Corps cheer: "Oo-Rah!"
The Kennedy Krieger Young Marines Program has to meet national program standards. Students sport a uniform haircut, log 50 hours of community service a year, and maintain a 3.0 grade-point average. The physical fitness requirements are modified for the Kennedy Krieger students' individual disabilities, school officials said.
Kennedy Krieger has drawn attention from programs across the nation that want to know the secret to the school's success.
"I think people expect a magic answer," said Aaron Parsons, a retired Marine who is senior director of instruction at Kennedy Krieger. "Treat them like young Marines, and pull off the label."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun