News: Cadets graduate from Challenge Academy with new lease on life
Story by 1st Lt. Joseph Trovato
MAUSTON, Wis. - Ninety-nine Wisconsin teenagers took the first step in righting their lives as they graduated from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy during a June 14 ceremony in Mauston, Wis.
The graduation ceremony at Mauston High School marked the completion of a nearly six-month journey that began with 156 at-risk teens.
"Everything begins with a first step," said Cadet Tanner LaVelle, the class's distinguished honor graduate.
Referring to his first steps toward the Challenge Academy nearly six months before, LaVelle said, "For some, these would be the hardest steps of our lives thus far, but that just made them all the more important. That's the funny thing about first steps. They tend to be the hardest ones of all. That is why very few people have the courage to take them. But we have. We wouldn't be here today if we wouldn't have taken those crucial first steps."
The Challenge Academy seeks to re-shape the lives of at-risk teens between the age of 16 and 18 using a structured, military-style environment to build cadets' academics, discipline, character, and ultimately, their own sense of self-worth.
"I feel on top of the world," said Cadet Colton Wilson, a native of McFarland, Wis. "I never thought I could accomplish something like this, but the things that they teach us here … I'm just on top of the world."
Wilson, who described himself as a drug user and a dropout, specifically highlighted the discipline his time at the Challenge Academy instilled in him. He now has a full-time job and is enrolled in a program where he hopes to earn a business degree.
The same went for Megan Held, of Merton, Wis., who plans to go to school for cosmetology and eventually become a teacher.
"I'm extremely happy," Held said shortly after graduating. "I'm so excited. We just went through all this, and it was so difficult. Now it's all over, and I get to go out and do whatever I want to do because I have the chance."
A key factor in the success of each cadet is their assigned mentor, who helps guide them even after graduation day.
Gary Haughn and his wife, Karen, mentored one of the graduating class's cadets. Haughn said watching their cadet, Katelyn Zifko, of Washburn, Wis., grow throughout the process has been rewarding.
"She was struggling in school, and this program gave her an opportunity where she was at risk for graduation early on in the school year, and she came out and said, 'I can straighten my life up if I try something like this.,'" he said. "She likes the discipline. She likes the regimen. She really has changed as a young woman, and she really is respectful as a young lady now."
Perhaps even prouder were the parents who watched their children take responsibility for their lives.
"I am so proud of her," said Holly Miller of Mauston. "She has made some really huge changes in her life and her attitude. She has goals, which she hadn't had before she came here. I'm just so proud overall.
"She just used to have the 'I don't care' attitude, and now she thinks about things before she does them," said Miller, whose daughter Makia became her second child to graduate from the program.
Throughout their time at the Challenge Academy, the cadets were taught academic discipline, physical fitness, healthy eating and responsibility. Eighty-four of the 99 cadets earned their high school equivalency diplomas while at the academy. Collectively, the class spent nearly 24,000 hours in the classroom, did 447,000 push-ups, and lost more than 800 pounds. One cadet lost 80 pounds, while another learned how to write in cursive for the first time. The cadets also put in a combined 5,800 hours of community service.
"You are the pride of Wisconsin," Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch told the cadets. "You are the leaders of the next generation, and we are tremendously proud of today's accomplishments.
"Cadets, you are motivated, and you have committed to a plan to help yourselves and your families in the future, and we salute you for that," she added.
Speaking to his cadets for the last time, Lt. Col. Mike Murphy, the director of the Challenge Academy, reminded the cadets that life was all about choices.
"Go out and do great things," he said. "Achieve your goals, and always remember to choose the harder right over the easier wrong."
Urging his fellow cadets to see graduation from the Challenge Academy as a first step, LaVelle said, "We've been challenged for the past 22 weeks, but it doesn't stop here. The challenges we're all about to face will be the longest and most challenging of all — the challenges of everyday life."