ST. PAUL (AP) -- Nearly 250 youngsters have cut their hair, put on military clothing and gather twice a week to learn about aviation skills and police work and practice military drills.
They are part of Youth 2000, formed about three months ago as a way to motivate young people.
''The mission -- I'm going to get kids to hate drugs, crime and gangs,'' says Locha Thao, the group's organizer. He aims to teach the 7- to 18-year-old cadets respect for themselves, each other and the community.
Since Thao made a presentation about Youth 2000 to members of the Hmong community in mid-March, enrollment in the program soared.
Like the programs he founded in Sacramento, Calif., and Austin, Texas, most of the St. Paul group's members are Hmong, but the organization's supporters hope to see youth of all colors join.
A California native and commercial airline pilot, Thao grew up in a military household but never served. He started the first Youth 2000 in Sacramento two years ago, and another in Austin shortly afterward. He travels among the three cities, supporting local organizers, communicating with the cadets and guiding the program.
Cadets in Sacramento and Austin participate in antiviolence marches, community cleanups and activities that promote peace between ethnic groups. Program organizers also bring in community and military leaders who stress the importance of goals.
Private contributions pay for everything but battle dress uniforms and the navy and gray banquet uniforms that cost about $150.
''I love it, my uniform, it makes you feel like you are in with the other people,'' said Lucky Vang, 15. ''When we are all in BDUs, it says we are all the same. No one is better than the other.''
Before every practice, the youth trim their hair, shine boots and clean their uniforms.
''If you teach the kids a discipline and give them the understanding that they need to reach a rank, they are given a goal and given the means to reach it,'' said Bruce Kraemer, Minnesota National Guard youth development officer and coordinator of the program in St. Paul.
Commanders from the Sacramento group visited to train new cadets. Bee Vang, an 18-year-old Sacramento high school senior, gave up his spring break last month to train commanders of the fledgling St. Paul group.
''I had a goal when I joined and I am hoping to see that,'' Bee Vang said. He wants to see young people take an active role in curbing youth violence, breaking up gangs and staying away from drugs. And on top of this goal, Bee Vang said the training he has received through Youth 2000 has prepared him for the military, an aspiration many of the cadets pursue after high school graduation.
Thao also intends to help parents connect with their children, something he says is missing.
''There is no system or chain of command; you cannot pull them together,'' he said. By teaching military discipline and keeping young people off the streets, Youth 2000 bridges a gap between parents and children.
The program has helped St. Paul resident Chue Lee's son, Moua, make the decision to enlist in the military after graduation, she said, adding that youth learn what it takes to succeed in the military.
Moua's level of respect for other youth, adults and his parents has escalated, she said, adding that he now apologizes when he knows he did something wrong. This behavior has rubbed off on his friends, Chue Lee added.
Like Moua Lee drawing his friends into the group, and Lucky Vang bringing in his brothers, many of the cadets have followed the lead of family or friends to join.
''My four brothers are gaining leadership skills and a position in society,'' said Mee Vang, Lucky Vang's older sister. ''They are leaders.''
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.