By 1st Lt. Joe Trovato
Wisconsin National Guard
FORT MCCOY, Wis. - A pair of Wisconsin state legislators from Milwaukee got a first-hand look at the Wisconsin National Guard’s Challenge Academy at Fort McCoy, Wis., during an April 22 site visit.
Rep. Evan Goyke and Rep. LaTonya Johnson, who represent Wisconsin’s 17th and 18th Assembly districts respectively, visited the academy to learn more about how the program was re-shaping the lives of at-risk young people.
“I was so impressed by the young women we talked to at lunch and just their attitudes and their plans after the academy is over and just their overall outlook on life,” Johnson said after the visit concluded. “It spoke volumes, because they were really here because they were serious about taking control of their lives.”
The representatives heard a presentation on the Challenge Academy before having lunch in the dining facility with the cadets. They then toured the academy’s living and academic areas.
“I see it not only placing a value on academics, which they are, but just changing the kids’ view and feel about their lives,” Johnson said. “If you can change a youth’s values and how they see themselves and how they see their lives, you can have a huge impact.”
The Challenge Academy, which first opened its doors in 1998, aims to reshape the lives of at at-risk youths between the age of 16 and 18 using a structured, quasi-military environment and a quality staff of teachers and counselors to help build cadets’ academics, discipline, integrity, character, and ultimately, their self-respect.
The five-and-a-half-month-long course incorporates physical fitness, job skills, leadership, health, hygiene, nutrition, coping skills, and civil service into its curriculum in hopes of turning out young men and women with a renewed sense of self worth.
Enduring through the Challenge Academy is no easy task, however.
Before he arrived at the Challenge Academy, Casetin Fillbach, 17, of Orfordville, Wis., said he was a heavy drinker and a cigarette smoker.
When asked how his time at the Challenge Academy has changed him, he said, “I’m not coming to school hung over drunk every morning. I actually have control of my mind. I’ve got oxygen flowing in my lungs, and I don’t have breathing problems. We run here a lot.”
He and approximately 100 other cadets are in the midst of their Challenge Academy experience. The current class will graduate in a June 14 ceremony at Mauston High School in Mauston, Wis.
Fellow cadet Preston Weaver, of Milwaukee, is turning his life around as well.
“Before I came here, I was smoking pot, not going to school, not attending, drinking, and partying,” he said.
Eventually, he fell far enough behind in his credits that graduating from high school with a diploma was in jeopardy. After a family member — and former Challenge Academy graduate — recommended that he get his life back on track, Weaver enrolled.
“Now I don’t want to do the stuff I was doing before,” he said. “I’m actually setting goals and plans for my life like going to college and getting scholarships and helping out as much as I can with my family.”
Specifically, he said, he has learned discipline and integrity, which he described as “the steps to becoming a man.”
Weaver admitted that he wanted to quit when he first arrived — a feeling that many cadets share. But the positives at the end are worth the sacrifices these cadets make.
“It very systematically targets kids, young people, that would otherwise fall through the cracks,” said Goyke, who was visiting the Challenge Academy for the first time. “It takes the self-motivation to volunteer. So we’re dealing with a population that desires a better life, a better education, and more discipline."
“They don’t like where they are in life, and this is a way out,” he continued. “So that purpose is so laudable and important that this kid would go from someone that society may throw away, to someone who would become an incredibly important and productive member of our community.”
Goyke also highlighted the economic return on investment the Challenge Academy provides. Every dollar spent on the program results in a return of $2.66 to the community, or a 166-percent return on investment, according to a 2012 study published by the Rand Corporation.
“Beyond the economics, just the moral value of taking someone who desires more for themselves and giving them that opportunity,” Goyke said. “It’s a win-win on both the economics and moral side.”
Since its inception, the Challenge Academy has graduated more than 2,500 students, more than 2,200 of which earned a high school equivalency diploma in the process.
Upon graduation from the resident phase of the Challenge Academy, cadets move on to the post-residential phase, during which they maintain regular contact with a trained mentor to help guide them as they transition back to civilian life.