The reality, though, is that most of these teens who left "the Creek" never made it past the eighth grade.
"We weren't allowed to go to the public schools," said "Sherrie," who ran away from the Fundamentalist LDS Church at age 16.
Teens who ran away or were kicked out of the polygamous enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., came to the state Capitol complex Friday to share their heartbreaking stories and plead with lawmakers for money to help fund housing and to purchase clothing and food for other children in their situation.
"If we can get some help from the government, imagine the difference it can make in these kids' lives," said Kevin Black, who was kicked out of the FLDS Church at age 17.
Many of the children have been dubbed "Lost Boys" — teenage boys that have been kicked out of the FLDS Church for committing a "sin," such as wearing short-sleeved shirts. The girls are never ousted; they run away.
"The girls are considered a commodity," said Shannon Price, director of the Diversity Foundation, which helps children who leave the border towns.
Each week, one or two teens are reported to have left "the Creek," the nickname for the border towns stemming from the former name of the community, once called Short Creek.
"I just didn't want to be out there anymore," said Sherrie, who didn't have a place to stay and began crashing at "party houses." Soon, she said, she was falling into the trap of substance abuse. After getting help, the 19-year-old now has stable housing and is trying to get her GED.
The groups that help these children said they have heard more than 1,000 have either been ousted or have left. Most don't have a formal education. Price said that stopped when the Alta Academy, an FLDS private school run by Warren Jeffs, shut down in 1998.
Jeffs is now the leader of the FLDS Church and facing criminal charges in Utah and Arizona, which have accused him of arranging child-bride marriages. Price said Jeffs continues to create upheaval in families — even from jail.
"Children continue to be ostracized from the community. They're asked to leave by the dictates of Warren Jeffs," she said.
The teens came to the Capitol for "Democracy Day 2007," learning how to advocate their cause to politicians. They shifted in their seats as they sat through lectures on committees, bills and budget items. While lobbyists chatted on cell phones around them, the young people patiently signed their names to little green notes asking to meet with their representatives on Capitol Hill.
"I've never felt so misplaced," Black said, gazing at the swarm of activity around him outside the Senate chambers.
They found a receptive audience among southern Utah politicians. The teens were ushered into a meeting room, where they sat in comfy chairs as legislative aides walked in and out.
"All of the kids, for the most part, are under 18," said Michelle Benward, who is with the group New Frontiers for Families. "They're living in St. George, without supervision. They're on their own, working, doing their best."
Over the noise of an overhead page calling lawmakers to vote, the teens and their advocates told their stories. The lawmakers' faces grew more concerned with each story they heard. Boys told about being kicked out and having their families cut ties to them to remain in the FLDS Church.
"They tell you (that you) need to repent from a distance," said one boy, named "Jeremy."
"Repent for what?" asked Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, whose district includes Hildale.
"For whatever they think you did wrong," Jeremy replied.
The politicians quizzed the advocates about foster care, the Division of Family Service, Workforce Services and other state programs. The Legislature passed a law last year intended to make it easier for such teens to emancipate themselves. Benward said it has helped, but many children are still falling through the cracks.
"When I go into DCFS, they say it's an Arizona problem. When I go into Workforce Services, they want to know where their mom is. Some of the kids just don't know," she said.
"Even if they did, they would not vilify their parents," Price added.
The lawmakers were receptive but showed a little sticker shock at the funding request — $250,000 each year for the next 10 years. The advocates want it attached to a bill to help homeless youth.
"It's far more difficult to try and invent a whole new system than it is to work within the framework that we've got," Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, told the group.
Shaking hands with the teens as they were leaving, Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George, told the Deseret Morning News he would look into what he could to do to help.
"What happens when you look into these kids' faces, it just makes it real," he said. "It's a very unique problem."