News: Youth ChalleNGe program nears 100,000 graduates
Story by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
WASHINGTON — With increasing government and private support, a National Guard program that helps high school dropouts transform their lives is closing in on its 100,000th graduate.
"The National Guard is proud of the success of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program," said Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. "It is essential that we reduce the number of high school dropouts, and Youth ChalleNGe is part of the solution."
McKinley was hosted by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John B. Conaway, chairman of the National Guard Youth Foundation, along with several other corporate and military leaders, politicians and celebrities at the 2010 Challenge Champions Gala held Tuesday evening, Feb. 23.
"Gen. McKinley and the National Guard are not only fighting our nation's wars overseas and helping here inside the United States ... but they have another mission — helping to save America's youth, so they can be productive citizens," Conaway said.
Highlights for the nation's second-largest mentoring program in the last year include a jump in the percentage of federal dollars contributed to each state from 60 percent to 75 percent; an Office of Management and Budget-directed $20 million boost in Defense Department money for the program for the 2011 fiscal year; and increasing private support despite a challenging economy.
"I'm not doing it for nobody else," said Jameka Micchell, a 17-year-old ChalleNGe cadet from Georgia, who was selected to attend the gala. She is currently in the 17-month voluntary intervention program and has her heart set on joining the 92,850 young people who have graduated since 1993.
"I'm doing this for myself," Micchell said, "because I realize that I need to change."
About 1.3 million students drop out of high school each year, costing the nation more than $335 billion in lost wages, revenues and productivity over their lifetimes, said Youth ChalleNGe officials.
"This is a national epidemic, and it is a national shame," said Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. "We must do something about it, and this program does."
High school dropouts are more likely to live in poverty, receive public assistance, go to prison and face health problems and divorce. Life expectancy is nine years shorter than a high school graduate. Of the $50 billion the federal government spends on incarceration, $45 billion is spent on individuals who did not get a high school diploma.
"Not only does this dropout rate cost our economy billions of dollars each year, but it means that fewer and fewer Americans are able to succeed in this economy," Landrieu said. "It is our responsibility to provide opportunities — not guarantees, but opportunities."
The National Guard has been doing that since 1993, when the congressionally mandated program was founded.
Twenty seven states and Puerto Rico currently have the program; another five states and the Virgin Islands have requested to add the program, which targets 16- to 18-year-old high school dropouts.
At the gala, J. Randolph Babbitt, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration gave out the first two pilots' licenses he has personally presented since he took office — to two graduates of the Youth ChalleNGe Program.
Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motor Sports — home of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. — announced 10 mechanic internships for cadets.
And WWE superstar MVP told how he got caught up in street gangs and served a nearly 10-year prison sentence before turning his life around.
"Crime pays, but you have to pay it all back with interest," MVP said. "It is through dedication, hard work and sacrifice you can achieve your dreams — not through crime."
"The cadets are just very, very inspirational," said Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon of Panther Racing. "It really drives us on to be able to represent the National Guard and the Youth ChalleNGe Program."
Earnhardt said he sees the cadets as the true stars. "Their paths in life are inspirational to all of us," he said. "I don't give them advice: I listen."