News: Former Florida Youth ChalleNGe graduate returns to program to help guide new cadets
Story by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
By Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard Public Affairs
CAMP BLANDING JOINT TRAINING CENTER - Nine years ago Jonathan Aman was on the fast track to nowhere.
He was a high school dropout and admittedly was headed down a road where drinking, drugs and crime were in his future.
Aman said his life turned around when he entered the Florida Youth ChalleNGe Academy's inaugural class in 2001, learning leadership, life-coping skills and responsibility. The Youth ChalleNGe Academy is run by the Florida Department of Military Affairs and the Florida National Guard, and is a community-based program that leads, trains, and mentors at-risk youth so they become productive citizens in America's future. The five and half-month in-residence phase of the program at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center is aimed at promoting adult responsibility, values, and basic lifestyle changes.
Today Aman, 26, is back at the Youth ChalleNGe Academy's campus, sharing his experiences with the newest cadets and working as a member of the cadre.
"When I started thinking about it, it was a really good opportunity for me to come back and work with these kids and kind of show them what I went through," Aman, who is the first former cadet to return to Youth ChalleNGe as cadre, explained.
After graduating the Academy with his high school degree, Aman considered joining the U.S. Marine Corps but instead focused on doing automotive body work and starting a family. Now he is married, has a one-year-old daughter, and last year watched his younger brother graduate from the ChalleNGe program. When Aman attended his brother's graduation ceremony, the Youth ChalleNGe director offered Aman a position with the program.
Aman said he knows firsthand what a difference Youth ChalleNGe can make in a teenager's life, so he is confident he can help the new cadets succeed in the program.
"They're getting a life changing experience," he said. "You're sending them off and giving them a chance to grow up so they can go off and better their lives. There's a lot of kids if they didn't come here would be on the streets, in jail, [or] dead...they wouldn't be able to make a change in their lives at all. But with this program it gives them a chance to make a new start."
From the time the cadets enter the program until their graduation day, Aman is part of the team that encourages, teaches and motivates the teenagers to excel and earn their high school diplomas. He explained he can "really relate" to the cadets since he was once in their place.
Youth ChalleNGe Commandant Sgt. Maj. Jimmie Vazquez helped guide Aman during his time as a cadet in 2001, and said he is excited about the new addition to his staff.
"We've been waiting for a former cadet to come back," Vazquez said. "He has the experience of being a cadet, and now he is a mature adult and we feel that his knowledge of what he went through will help... He can definitely help these cadets."
Since the Florida Youth ChalleNGe program began in 2001, more than 1,800 cadets from 60 counties have graduated from the residential phase of the program. After graduation, 100 percent of the cadets have been placed in some form of higher education, working, or serving in the military by their own choice.
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