News: Maryland Freestate ChalleNGe Crossover
Story by Sgt. Isolda McClelland
EDGEWOOD, Md. - They entered wearing black coats over gray sweats, each participant marked with a badge signifying they were part of a team. Lined up alphabetically and by platoon, they heeded the motion to move quickly yet quietly, and then were instructed to sit at the modified position of attention, head and eyes forward, hands over knees, and straight up in the chairs. They complied with no backtalk and no tears, and sat listening, ready to “cross over” - one of the many milestones they would experience over the next 20 weeks at the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy.
On Jan. 28, the Maryland Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, on Aberdeen Proving Ground-Edgewood Area, held its first crossover ceremony since moving from the Aberdeen Proving Ground main installation.
This crossover ceremony is used mark the completion of the first two weeks of the 22-week course that Class No. 40 would experience at the academy. They had persevered through what is considered the greatest high-pressured portion of the program. Upon completion, crossing over, they are now ready to transition from the role of a potential candidate to cadet.
“This class started with 129 candidates, and over the acclimation phase, we’ve only lost eight, which is a big accomplishment,” said 1st Sgt. Job Stringfellow, FSC commandant. “We usually lose 20 to 30 candidates after the first two weeks.”
The overall mission of the FSC is to intervene in the lives of at-risk high school dropouts by providing the skills, education and self-discipline needed to produce responsible, productive citizens.
In 1993, Congress approved the Defense Authorization Bill, which introduced the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program as a pilot program.
2012 marked the 19th anniversary of the program and was another extremely successful year for the academy. More than 150 students graduated this in 2012, and 3,218 cadets have graduated since the academy’s beginning in 1993.
Stringfellow, who has been with the academy since its inception, explained, “These kids come in with a lot of issues and need a lot of support and encouragement to let them know they can do it.”
Staff members reflected on how difficult the previous two weeks had been for the candidates.
“They (have) spent the last two weeks getting used to the way of life here,” said Marlene Heyman, a mentor coordinator for FSC, who has been with the program for more than eight years.
“They have learned that they can do their own laundry, (and) they have learned that they can actually have a conversation with someone they only met a minute ago,” she added. “It is intense, but they made it through.”
For Class #40, the significance of making it through these past two weeks has been life-changing.
“Today as they (FSC candidates) cross the stage, they will be issued their first rank and service ribbon,” said Heyman. “Later, they will be issued their uniforms, and they will also get to make their first phone call home to mom and dad since arriving here.”
Ikea Green, a candidate and soon-to-be cadet at FSC, stated that her experience has offered her the ability to become an assistant platoon leader.
“It’s been good for me. I haven’t had any problems, no drama, or anything over these past two weeks,” said Green. “I now know that I will pass this program and get my high school diploma.”
Some have found it challenging to be in an environment where peer support is essential to their progression.
“It’s definitely a challenge, more so (because of) having to deal with our peers, because I’m not used to having to live with different types of people,” said Kinia Johnson. “I am learning how to deal with other people’s personal issues and attitudes, which I find more (of a) challenge than getting through the program.”
At the new facility, staff and students feel that the separation of living quarters from the schoolhouse and daytime activities are the best advantage to an already well-run system.
“We love the fact that we are actually in two buildings, now that our school building is actually separate from the day and living quarters and offices,” said Heyman. “It has been a refreshing change.”
Stringfellow added that the new building and environment would help to continue the structure of the program by having the living environment separate from the day and educational activities.
“Challenge (FSC) works,” said Heyman. “It’s hard, (and) it’s messy and dirty for 22 weeks. You can’t live with 121 16- to 19-year-olds without breaking some eggs and scrambling them, but, at the end, we all cry, we all stay in touch, and that is what the program is about - and they are the better for it.”
Susan Wierzbicki, deputy director and acting director of the academy, addressed the students during the ceremony.
”I have a firm belief that we can show you a path but we can’t walk it for you,” she said. “After today, you are going to be a cadet, and we expect you to understand the standards. We expect you to understand words like honor and integrity. That is the purpose of acclimation (through the) pre-challenge, for you to see if you like the path you’ve chosen to stay on.”
In closing, Wierzbicki added, “We believe in you, each and every one of you. The question is do you all believe in yourselves? I hope so, and I will see you at graduation. Congratulations for crossing over.”