MIDDLEBURG - Timeka Benson saw a change in her son when he started attending Silver Oak Academy.
Justin Faison started looking at life differently and became a more positive person, she said.
"I thank Silver Oak for saving my son," Benson said. "He's on the right track."
Faison, class valedictorian, was one of eight graduates who received a high school diploma at Silver Oak Academy's 2013 summer graduation ceremony Thursday. The other graduates were Trevor Akindo, Malik Bass, Maurice Bray, James Cooper, Ravon Ngimbi, Dartangan Page and Damontez Tunstall.
Silver Oak Academy is a residential treatment program in Middleburg for adjudicated male at-risk youth.
School Principal Catherine Gammage said the boys are placed in the group home for six to nine months, then they can make the choice to extend their stay and graduate from the school. These graduates were at the school for 15 to 17 months, she said.
All of the summer graduates are receiving scholarships, and seven of them have identified the two-year colleges or technical schools they will attend, Gammage said. They are all leaving the school with at least one certification in subjects including construction, culinary arts and haircutting.
"They're very respectable young men," she said. "They made the choice to be successful and go to the next level."
During the graduation, audience members saw a slide show that featured all graduates, including pictures of them as children, recent photos of them participating in sports or showing them taking part in community outreach efforts.
Toward the end of the ceremony, each graduate was given a key that they then gave to a family member, friend or teacher who made a big difference in their life. On it, the key said "Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom."
The keynote speaker of the graduation was Joseph Jennings, president and founder of Second Chance Outreach Inc., an organization that works to prevent youth violence by providing positive alternatives to gang involvement, drug use, bullying and other high-risk behaviors.
Jennings is a former gang leader and explained how he had been burned, stabbed and shot 13 times.
He encouraged the graduates to think carefully about the choices they make in the future and leave the past behind.
"I don't care what you've been through," he said. "God is a God of second chances."
Everyone has a specific purpose in life and the past does not necessarily determine the future, Jennings said. He said the future is whatever they choose to make it.
"You've got to start to believe in yourself," he said. "If you don't believe in yourself, you'll never make it."
Former graduate Javasca Morris also spoke to the graduates and told them he was sitting in the same spot a year and a half ago. He would have never made it so far without Silver Oak Academy, he said.
Morris decided not to move back to his old neighborhood and associate with the same people because he knew that was not the environment where he would achieve success. Now he attends school, has an apartment and works two jobs, he said.
"You will have a long, prosperous life if you make it that way," Morris said.
During his valedictorian speech, Faison thanked everyone who put an effort into making him successful. He was proud to be the class valedictorian.
"This shows the discipline and effort I put into my education," he said. "I strived to make it to the top."
He will be going to The Community College of Baltimore County then he plans to transfer to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Afterward, he wants to be a computer technician in the Air Force.
His mother, Benson, said she enjoyed everything about the graduation ceremony.
"It made me feel very proud," she said.