WASHINGTON, DC, UNITED STATES
WASHINGTON - When Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presided today at the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe graduation in New Jersey, he witnessed a rite of passage being shared by about 8,000 at-risk youth across the country every year.
All came to their state's Youth ChalleNGe program as high school dropouts identified as being at risk for substance abuse, pregnancy, delinquency and criminal activity.
All faced the same rude awakening when they showed up for the first day of a 22-week resident phase that starts the program: no cell phones or electronic games, "O-dark-30" wakeups for physical training, mandatory drug screenings and not a single minute of unstructured free time from sunup to sundown.
But for more than 90,000 cadets who have graduated from the program since Congress first authorized it in 1993, those sacrifices pale when compared to the possibilities the program provides.
Sixteen-year-old Haley Tolbert recently joined the Illinois National Guard's Lincoln ChalleNGe Academy, desperate to turn her life around. She had failing grades and was getting into trouble at school. She recently had moved out of her house to escape constant arguments with her parents.
"I didn't know of any other way to get my life back in order," she said.
Tolbert is among 378 cadets wrapping up their first week of Lincoln ChalleNGe at the former Chanute Air Force Base complex in Rantoul, Ill. It's the single largest Youth Challenge site, and one of the biggest of 33 programs conducted in 28 states and Puerto Rico. The Illinois program recently graduated 303 cadets from the resident program.
Richard Norris, Lincoln ChalleNGe's lead instructor, said he's amazed by the huge changes he sees in young people who elect to participate in the voluntary program.
"They've come here having made a decision that they need to change their lives," said Norris, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who's been with the Illinois program for 16 years. "They have made a commitment, and we have made a commitment to them, too."
The National Guardsmen and retired military members who run the program expose cadets to a steady diet of military-based training and supervised work experience that centers on core program values: citizenship, academics, life-coping skills, community service, health and hygiene, job skills training, leadership and "followership," and physical training.
Army Maj. Gen. William Enyart, Illinois' adjutant general, said the cadre's tireless efforts bring many cadets something they've never experienced.
"They instill the cadets with the discipline that up to that point has been lacking in their lives, and give them back those core values that can guide them in making a success life," Enyart said. "They are incredibly dedicated, incredibly hardworking, and devote countless hours of time to ensure that these cadets are successful."
Norris cited the second phase of the program, a year of mentoring, as a critical follow-on that builds on cadets' accomplishments during the resident phase. Cadets select their own mentors: a teacher, clergy member, police, firefighter or other adult community member. The Youth ChalleNge cadre offers training to help them be effective mentors.
"It really doesn't matter what we're able to do with these cadets if they finish the program and fall back into their old patterns," Norris said. "Mentors provide the continuity that is key in ensuring their success."
Eighteen-year-old Brandon Walton, another new cadet in the Lincoln ChalleNGe program, already has a pretty clear idea of how he'll measure his own success. Walton called the program his "last shot" in getting his life back on track. He was a high achiever in high school, earning a 3.5 grade point average, before he dropped out to help to support his financially struggling family.
Fast-forwarding 22 months ahead, he sees himself graduating from high school, making a gesture to every member of his family to thank them for what they've given him, then joining the Navy or Marine Corps.
"I have big goals and aspirations in life," he said.
Although Walton hopes to one day join the military, he's an exception. Only about 14 percent of the Lincoln ChalleNGe graduates do — a statistic Enyart said he's perfectly comfortable with. Youth ChalleNGe isn't designed as a recruiting program, he explained. It's just a way for the Guard to support the communities in which it operates.
"We view this as an important element of what we do for the community," he said. "We are a community-based organization, and by giving back to the community this way, we're helping build a stronger community and a stronger society."
The states appear to agree, with many seeking to expand their programs despite ever-tightening budgets. States pay 40 percent of the program cost, and the National Guard Bureau picks up the rest, about $93 million a year, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony Kissik, director of the Guard Bureau's youth development office.
Air Force Col. Willie Cobetto, federal coordinator for Lincoln ChalleNGe, called the Illinois' legislature's commitment of $38 million to build a new facility for the program a sign of the value it places on the program.
"They recognize that this is a program that works," he said. "This program is about seeing the kids change, and making a difference and knowing they are on the right track."
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This work, Guard's Youth ChalleNGe Turns At-risk Youth's Lives Around, by Donna Miles, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.