News: Guard reaches out to community, youth
Story by Sgt. Lauren Twigg
QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. - Young boys’ voices are heard in unison yelling the word “challenge” as they drop to do pushups. The boys conduct the exercise with stern, determined faces while the instructor shouts cadence.
While this may sound like something out of a military basic training movie, it is just a snapshot of a program where teens have come together in search for new direction in their lives so that they can be better people.
Twice each year, teens from across the state participate in Project Challenge here, hosted by the Arizona National Guard.
The program is operated by civilians, veteran service members, as well as Guard members, who provide coaching and mentorship to teens in need of redirecting their lives.
“This is a program designed to take in at-risk youth and help them become productive members of society, and ensuring they regain their confidence in achieving personal and professional goals,” said John Burk, the senior executive officer for the Department of Military Affairs for Arizona, and overseer of Project Challenge.
The course is for youths between the ages of 16 to 19 who come from a variety of backgrounds with a desire to make better life choices.
“These kids come from all different walks of life,” said Spc. Ian Carefoot, an Arizona Guard member and an instructor for Project Challenge. “Some of the kids come from good families, but the kids just made some certain negative decisions, some come from broken homes and are in need of guidance with life skills. We build them back up and give them the tools they need to be a positive part of society again.”
Although, the five-month residency course is not considered a school, it serves as an academic social transition for those youths who have dropped out and have voluntarily decided it was time to make a change.
“We do recruiting where teams will go out to local schools and communities and reach out to youth who are at-risk,” Carefoot said. “It is all by choice, the parents or guardians may encourage attendance, but it comes down to the cadets making that decision to enter the program and turn their lives around.”
The students – called cadets – are taught a variety of lessons based on an intervention model with eight core components: life coping skills, academic excellence, responsible citizenship, health and hygiene, job skills, physical fitness, leadership and followership, and service to community.
“Each Core Component is broken down into many different sections with each section having different "milestones" along the way,” Carefoot said. “I'm always telling these cadets that they can only get what they put into the program. We can teach anything and everything under the sun, but it's what they choose to do with that knowledge is what counts.”
Partnered with Sequoia Charter Schools, which is accredited by the Arizona Department of Education, Project Challenge accepts youths and assesses what kind of future educational plans should be implemented for each cadet.
The program may seem like a charter school, but what sets it apart from the rest is it is a residency program with a “quasi-military” training environment designed to provide a micro-guided approach to life skills training.
“The residency training, within a military-type environment, provides a structured way students can learn life and academic skills and even after they leave the academy, we still follow-up with them by conducting a one-year mentorship to ensure the continued success of Project Challenge,” Burk said.
The cadets are not the only ones who take something away from the program – Guard members who take on the duties as role models for the kids are able to connect to their community and engage with troubled teens who look up to the staff for advice and guidance.
“I’ve worked for Project Challenge for five years and the one thing I love about this program is to witness all the successes from previous classes,” Carefoot said. “It’s motivating just for me that I am a part of shaping a kid’s life and it’s important that our community knows about this program and continues to use it. The community sends their troubled teens here and we return them back to be contributing members of society – kind of like paying it forward.”
The program relies on state and federal funding, for its $2 million annual operating budget. The federal contribution provides $3 for every $1 the state provides.
If the program is not actively used by the communities in Arizona, the funds will go away and the program will have to be terminated.
To learn more about Project Challenge and how to contribute, or sign up, visit: www.ngycp.org/site/state/az/.