News: ChalleNGe cadets begin GED quest with basics
Story by 2nd Lt. Christian Venhuizen
CAMP GUERNSEY, Wyo. – On the second floor of a converted Wyoming Army National Guard barracks, Killian Leetch, sat with a smile on his face, while his bushy locks were replaced with a freshly shorn head. It was the price the17-year-old paid for entry into the Wyoming National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe Program, on the first day of class, July 11.
Leetch, like all of the other 37 cadets of Class 10, is a high school dropout, a requirement to enroll in the regimented five-and-a-half-month GED program. Before stepping onto the campus, located on the Wyoming Guard’s Camp Guernsey Regional Training Center, Leetch couldn’t find a job and was about to lose his home.
“Usually it seems like my family ends up in jail, dead, or in the military,” Leetch said.
His youth pastor, who he was staying with temporarily, told Leetch it was time for him to move on. The pastor steered him to Youth ChalleNGe.
“I really wasn’t considering this at all until last week,” Leetch said. It was the second time the program was brought up to the dropout. He said his mother and stepfather encouraged him to enroll, that was just before he parted ways with them.
Leetch, a native of Sheridan, tried to find a job. He said mistakes in his life left him going from business to business, applying for jobs with no success. When that second recommendation to attend Youth ChalleNGe came up, Leetch saw an opportunity.
“I adjust pretty fast. I learn pretty quickly,” he said. “I really don’t make the same mistake twice.”
The Youth ChalleNGe program (the capital NG reflects its National Guard roots) is designed to provide dropouts with a cost-free second chance. The first five-and-a-half-months focuses on personal responsibility, life skills and core education requirements. The goal is to have the cadets prepared to pass the GED exam and return to their towns as positive examples in their communities.
The first two weeks of the program introduce the cadets to the schedule and what is expected from them. That includes early mornings, physical fitness and community service. It also includes team building and counseling.
The regimented system, while based on some military methodologies, is not an Army or Air Force basic training program. The curriculum is taught by civilian educators, augmented by a staff of counselors, administrators, mentors and cadre. Responsible citizenship, including community service and involvement, is stressed during and after the in-residence portion of the program. Cadets are assigned mentors to work with them through at least the first year after graduation.
Sixteen-year-old Kaylee Johnson, of Newcastle, was in-and-out of trouble with alcohol violations and other problems. Like Leetch, she said she saw Youth ChalleNGe as a way to break the cycle.
“It’s a way to get out of your town and it’s a way to get away from [the bad influences], “she said. “It’s not like the girls school where you learn to be a better criminal. You come here to learn to be a better person.”
Johnson has aspirations to attend college after graduation. She said she wants to start with a few night classes, eventually transferring to Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock is where her father is from.
The cadets all volunteer to enroll and remain in the program. While they dropped out of school for various reasons, all have nearly the same primary goal, finding their path to the American dream.
“I just want to have a successful life, and if I didn’t come here, I won’t have a successful life,” said 16-year-old Chase Muckley, of Casper.
This is Muckley’s second time through the program. He was disenrolled from the previous class after an altercation with other cadets. Before leaving, administrators counseled him that he broke the rules and had to face the consequences. They also invited him to reapply to the program.
“I was really shocked,” Muckley said of his own behavior. “I was really disappointed in myself.”
However, the time between his disenrollment and reenrollment provided an opportunity for self reflection. “I’ve grown up a little bit. I realized what I did last time was stupid. It was childish,” he said.
For some cadets, their background has less to do with run-ins with the law, and more to do with scholastic performance. Adam Gerrard, a 16-year-old from Evanston, was failing in high school.
“I just didn’t pay attention in class,” he said. His brother, a Wyoming Army National Guard Soldier, suggested it was time to try Youth ChalleNGe.
“It’s a lot stricter,” Gerrard said of his impression of Youth ChalleNGe. “I’ll pay attention better and there’s a lot of athletic things to do too.”
Cadets begin their day at 5:00 a.m. On the first day of the program, Gerrard said he expected the early morning to be his biggest challenge and he noted more than a few butterflies in his stomach. “I’m pretty nervous, yeah. I don’t really know what to expect.”
Despite his nerves, he wants to complete the program, join the National Guard and attend college or a technical school. Gerrard said this is not just for him, but for his family.
“My mom was pretty excited because she wants to see me succeed,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll do well so I can make my mom happy… I hate to see my mom sad. She was pretty upset about [the failing grades].”
Alfonoso Avila also struggled with his grades in Kemmerer. The 16-year-old said his high school principal recommended he give Youth ChalleNGe a try.
“I wasn’t doing so good in school,” Avila said, describing his weaknesses. “I guess I’m not that smart in school.”
Despite his misgivings about himself, Avila said he’s looking forward to learning and developing. “I wanted a challenge,” he said. “So far I like it. There’s nothing I haven’t disliked about it.”