A year ago, Sebastian Stoll wasn't good at making friends in school, and he used to be afraid of his stepmom.
"Anytime she got angry or barked at me, I would back away and run to my room," Stoll said.
Not anymore. This month, Stoll graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon, and he credits the Montana National Guard-sponsored program with giving him confidence and the knowledge that he can succeed.
Now, he takes criticism from Michele Stoll in stride, and he isn't afraid of reaching out to his peers.
"Now, I feel like I could just pretty much talk to anyone and get to know them," said Stoll, 18.
The turnaround took 5 1/2 months, a blowup with his family and personal grit. At first, the Missoula teen didn't want to go to the academy at all.
As he tells it, Stoll wasn't the type of kid who did drugs and ran off with his friends at night, but he wasn't a responsible or mature teen, either. He was selfish and he didn't mind his parents.
"I was kind of not really confident in myself, and I kind of always expected to fail," Stoll said.
His dad, Scott Stoll, brought up the quasi-military academy on the University of Montana-Western campus, and Sebastian warmed to the idea. He began thinking it over and sent off an application.
Then he went to live with an aunt in Mineral County, and she wasn't keen on the program at all. She told Stoll she knew another young man who had cried because he was so unhappy there, so Stoll figured he wouldn't like it, either.
Three months later, his dad came to pick him up, but Stoll refused to return home. After a blowup, the sheriff's office got involved, and a law enforcement officer told Stoll that unless he was emancipated, he needed to go with his father.
They drove home, an irritated Stoll stewing in the passenger seat.
At home in Missoula, Stoll's stepmom issued an ultimatum, he said: Either he go to the academy, or he and his father both move out.
Scott Stoll has a different version of events. Actually, he said, his wife insisted Sebastian attend, but she never made a demand.
"All anyone ever tried to do was to make sure Sebastian was OK," Stoll said.
The younger Stoll's decision wasn't cut and dried, but he began mulling the idea of the academy all over again. He'd been accepted while he was at his aunt's house, and when he reviewed the packing list, he started liking the tone the school set.
It allowed 20 stamped envelopes – so Stoll knew he could stay in touch with loved ones.
It called for six pairs of T-shirts in limited colors and brands – so Stoll saw the teens in the program were equals.
He agreed to attend. His stepmom put his name on all his belongings, and on July 22, his dad drove him and his two traveling bags to Dillon.
That morning, his dad hugged him goodbye in a parting that was emotional for them both.
"I know my dad said to do your best while you're here," Stoll said.
He knows, too, he said, that his stepmom loves him and is a good mom. "She's the one who's been there for me and my dad," he said.
Later the same day, Stoll sat on his cot and wrote his dad a letter about the way the program had unfolded in those first hours. He didn't have much to report, but he had a sense his time would be spent well.
"I told him ... how I was starting to like it," he said.
During the first part of the program, the estimated 100 "at-risk" youths aren't allowed to talk with each other. This phase lasts 10 days.
Clay Cantrell, admissions counselor, said the quiet time is meant to set the stage for teaching accountability and discipline. Cantrell recruited Stoll into the academy and brought him to the Missoulian on Monday to tell his story.
"That's what we focus on, is discipline. Can you do something as small as not talking while you're eating for the self-discipline?" Cantrell said.
The program is strict, and cadets who rack up enough infractions get sent home. Stoll started most of his days at 5:30 a.m., and at first he feared he wouldn't do well because he wasn't good at marching.
"At first, it's hard to stay in step. You're trying to follow the pace of whoever is calling cadence," Stoll said.
After enough practice, the marching became second nature, and he saw himself excel in other areas. Stoll took to a class on leadership, sailed through math courses and got accepted into the color guard.
The resident phase of the program is just 5 1/2 months, but Cantrell said the lessons stick because the experience is focused and intense.
"You live it every single day, and you don't have the distractions of phones, TV, computer, things like that. So you learn quicker, faster, better," Cantrell said.
Soon, it was time to plan for graduation, and Stoll was going to put his heart into it.
"They want graduation done a certain way. You want to look good for your parents. 'Hey, I've made a change.' So it takes a lot of practice," he said.
That day, he put his navy blue gown over his battle dress uniform and he laced up his boots. He had gone through the eight components of the program: academic excellence, leadership and followership, responsible citizenship, job skills, physical fitness, service to community, life coping skills, and health and hygiene.
On the toughest days, he reminded himself of his father's parting words and encouragement. And on the day to celebrate, his father attended the ceremony.
"He said he was pretty proud of me for graduating. He was glad I made it through the program. I showed him my diploma, and he was pretty proud of that as well," Stoll said.
Now, he's home, and he'll soon head to a Job Corps center for further training. Before he goes, he'll volunteer at the YMCA to give back to his community, something he wouldn't have been doing before going to the academy, Cantrell said.
In this yearlong phase of the program, a mentor will check in with Stoll to make sure he has an ear and support, and the guide will report his progress to the academy.
The federal government pays for 75 percent of the program, and the state pays for 25 percent, so it's free for participants and their families.
To date, the academy has graduated 2,298 cadets since its inception in Montana in 1999, helping them develop "skills and abilities necessary to become productive citizens."
The program accepts teens ages 16 through 18.
At the Job Corps, Stoll plans to learn about being an electrician. He left the academy with goals and a sense of self, and an understanding of what it takes to be a leader.
"It actually takes a lot more than going up to someone and screaming at them. It takes, as being a leader, actually caring for your team as well," he said.
Sebastian Stoll graduated with no infractions.