Meet California State Guard Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kristen Spence

Story by U.S. Army Sgt Marla Ogden
California Military Department Public Affairs

Jan. 17, 2024

Los Alamitos, Calif.— California State Guard Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kristen Spence is the acting lead counselor at Sunburst Youth Academy, one of three free residential programs under Task Force Torch for high school students at risk of dropping out or falling behind. 

“We offer that extra support for the kids who need it due to the high stress of the environment and being away from home for five-and-a-half months," she said.

Before joining at Sunburst in 2013, Spence first interned as a student at the University of Southern California.

“I just fell in love with the program,” she said. “Everybody here is so passionate about these kids. As an intern, I started paying attention to the staff around me, and I thought, ‘I really want to work someplace where the people are passionate about their clients,’ because basically, we work for the kids.” 

Spence now supervises the Master's of Social Work interns from Cal State Long Beach and USC. 

“Another reason I wanted to work here is seeing the kids from the beginning through to graduation and just seeing the transformation…It’s really amazing,” she said.

Spence shared an account of one student who attended the program.

“He was the oldest of five, being raised by mom and grandma, and they were basically homeless," she said. "During the admissions interview, I asked him what his long- and short-term goals were, and he didn’t have any. He didn’t think he was going anywhere. He then came in and happened to be assigned to me for weekly counseling. So, we started talking every week, and he really started to grow and blossom. He really dug in and started to hold on to the program and get everything he could out of it."

“By the end of the cycle, he turned 18, got his high school diploma with us, and a case manager got him enrolled in community college," Spence continued. "He came back and visited a few weeks later and shared he was getting ready to start his first job. I thought ‘Wow! And this was the kid who had no thought past tomorrow…wow. That was really one of the hooks for me. I saw that transformation from the very beginning.”

“It’s such a great program,” she said. “It’s one of those best-kept secrets and it’s so beneficial for kids who have gotten behind in credits and need the structure and discipline.”

Upon completing the cycle at Sunburst, graduates gain eligibility to apply for the California Job Challenge, another residential program where they attend Long Beach City College to pursue certificates in fields such as construction, automotive technology, welding, cyber technology, and certified nursing assistant.

“By the time they get done [at Job Challenge], after one semester, they’ve got a certificate, they’re hirable, and get apprenticeships or get into unions for trades,” Spence explained. “We have kids come into admissions interviews and say, ‘I want to go to Sunburst because I want to go to Job Challenge,’ and they know this is one of the ways to get there.” 

Spence highlighted that Sunburst cadets not only benefit from positive role models and guidance, along with the opportunity to catch up on high school credits, but that Sunburst has resources to help align students with nearly any of their interests.

“If they don’t want to go home, can’t go home after, or they’re too young to be on their own, we have connections at Job Corps, California Conservation Corps and we know various military recruiters,” she said. “There’s just so many resources and options that we can offer them that they might not have ever known about.”