Last Saturday I went to a graduation unlike any other I’ve ever been to. No caps and gowns. No “Pomp and Circumstance.” Just a bunch of rag-tag kids with behavior problems.

George Schmalstig, a local guy in the community who has spent most of his career working with juvenile offenders, heads up a nonprofit organization that takes at-risk kids and teaches them stuff they need to know to keep them from a lifetime in and out of jail. He uses dirt bikes to do it.

George told me about one of the kids, who, after his mom died, went to live with his grandparents. So, the kid is grieving the loss of his mom, and his dad, whom no one knew about, appears and says he wants to raise his son. Now the kid gets uprooted from his friends and the only family he knows and moves 100 or so miles away to live with a new family. Then six months later, the dad decides he doesn’t want the kid and returns him to the grandparents.

The kid already had problems and now he has to deal with not being wanted by his own father. These are the kids George wants in his program. George showed me a video of this kid’s first day riding a dirt bike. He gets on and immediately wrecks. As the kid nervously works the throttle, George tells him, “You got this. When you get it down pat it’s going to be a much bigger deal to you because the first time you tried it, you went out and wrecked. You failed from the git go. When you master it, when you really get good at it, it will be that much more rewarding — you got back up.

“That’s what life’s about — getting back up,” George said.

George says there are no guarantees that these kids will not get into trouble, but he believes that being both tough and gentle, telling kids the truth and letting them know they act like jerks yet they also have worth, can make a difference.

At Saturday’s graduation, George told the kids: “At the beginning of this, most of you had never heard of Filter (Youth Development), and someway, somehow, out of 144,000 people in this community, the 13 of you came together — that’s miraculous in and of itself — and you weren’t even looking for it. It’s almost like it found you.

“You came here, and some of you had really bad behavior, and you came here not knowing who we were or what we’re all about...and we gave you a brand new helmet, the BEST helmet, the BEST riding gloves, a personalized shirt — we did this all for you. And you know what?

“You didn’t deserve it. And you came week after week — and you STILL didn’t deserve it.

“Here it is, graduation, and the question is, ‘Did you deserve any of it?’ The answer is still no — but you still have it,” George said. “That’s called grace.

“You’ve experienced grace, and that will change your life. It will change everything, because when you’ve experienced love that you don’t deserve and will never deserve, when you really get what that means, then you give it to others.”

Grace is powerful. It not only changes behavior, but it changes hearts. It changes families. It changes communities.

It can change a nation — or the world.

Grace changes everything.

Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria — I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing” and “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927 or via email at