DARIEN — Its members call it “the best kept secret.”

Each Monday night, 38 students from around Fairfield County and the surrounding areas gather in a building in Stamford, tucked behind the city’s animal control center. But this isn’t the meeting of a secret society. Instead, it’s a meeting of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets, specifically the Dealey Division.

The Dealey Division includes students from around Connecticut and New York, including several from Darien. The students spend their Monday nights throughout the year learning about military traditions, participating in fitness training and receiving training in a range of skills. Though the group may be small and little known in the area, it is impactful. The program isn’t just teaching students about the military, but instilling them with skills they’ll use throughout their lives.

“Out of all the things I’ve done (and I’ve done a lot of stuff), this has had the greatest impact,”said Jennifer Stannard, the commanding officer of the Dealey Division. “[The Cadets] develop a sense of respect, self discipline and the knowledge they can do more than they thought they could.”

Stannard got involved in the Sea Cadets when she and her son heard about the group from “the welcome wagon” when they moved to Stamford. Stannard got hired on as staff and now commands the group. Her son, now 36, graduated from the program, served 13 years in the Navy and now works in radio. Stennard saw firsthand how the program changes its members, which is why she’s chosen to stay on so many years. She said it was seeing a formerly shy young cadet speak in front of a crowd on the program’s Presentation Day that made her realize how much of a difference the cadets can make.

The goal of Sea Cadets is not necessarily prepare students for the Navy, but to teach them about the military and its practices, as well as instill leadership, medical and seafaring skills. The program, for students aged 11 through 18, is modeled on training in the Navy and provides students with opportunities to do things like international exchanges or spend a week on a Navy fleet.

Cheyenne de la Rivera, 17, of Darien, got the chance to live on a Navy ship during what’s known in the program as “Fleet Week.” de la Rivera, who has been doing Sea Cadets since she was in seventh grade, said it was Fleet Week that made her decide that she actually didn’t want to go into the military.

“I wasn't ever really interested, [but] when I went on Fleet Week I got to experience face to face, like this is what the Navy is. I decided then I didn’t want to be in the Navy,” said de la Rivera. “I don’t feel like the structure is for me.”

But the recent Darien High School graduate said the Sea Cadets program has still benefited her as a person and made her realize what she does want do with her life. After taking a gap year, de la Rivera will enroll in Nyack College in Nyack, New York. She plans to go into missionary work, something she hopes to potentially pursue during her year off.

“Helping people is important to me because of sea cadets,” she said. “It’s a really great experience to teach you about life and yourself. I’ve really grown as a person. It carves you out into a special individual because of all the respect that comes with it.”

On the other hand, de la Rivera’s childhood friend and fellow cadet, Kaitlyn Kutz, found through sea cadets that military life was for her. Kutz, 17, is going to be a senior at Darien High School next year and has already been accepted to summer seminars at West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy (where she was named honor graduate out of everyone in the battalion). She hopes to pursue competitive rifle shooting in college and then become an officer afterwards, make an impact on kids, like her own superiors made on her .

“I want to be able to help people and that’s kind of my main thing. I feel the military is a lot more structured and I need that structure in my life. I really like that environment and I feel like I can make a difference in people’s lives,” Kutz said. “Without Sea Cadets, I don’t think I’d even know I want to go into military. Sea Cadets definitely set my path for all of this.”

But the program doesn’t aim to send kids straight off to enlistment. In fact, only 20 percent of graduates from the Sea Cadet program go into the military, according to Stannard.

“We really encourage them to go to some form of college,” Stannard said. “We make sure they know what they’re signing up for when they enlist.”

Through activities like boot camps, cadets learn the value of teamwork. Lauren Reesor, 16, a junior at Darien High School, said that at a recent boot camp she attended with other cadets, the group all teamed up with one girl who was struggling with running the mile.

The program also teaches participants about diversity and the different paths their career can take.

“It’s interesting living in Darien. It’s not common at all [to go into the military],” Reesor said. “No one knows much about the military. Everyone’s focused on college after high school, so it’s different to do.”

Sea Cadets also exposes students to their peers from other backgrounds. The Dealey Division has students from all over the county, as well as New York. Students also can participate in international exchange programs or training with other divisions, allowing them to meet fellow cadets from other parts of the country and the world.

“It’s a really diverse crowd,” said Kyle Kutz, 14, of Darien. Kyle is the younger brother to Kaitlin and is also considering a career path in the military.

“We have a very diverse socioeconomic group and it’s an even ground here,” Stannard added. “They respect people, each other and differences of opinion.”

A visitor to the center can see this proves to be true. After fire safety and CPR training classes get out on a particular Monday night, older and younger cadets can be seen intermingling with each other effortlessly, Italian ices in hand. They drift out of the facility and into the civilian world again where they have their military training to make a difference.