Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst, N.J. -- "Even though I grew up in the projects and I didn't go to school when I was young, I never drank, and I never smoked a day in my life. I knew that once you start drinking, you're just going to end up without any money and still have all the same problems you had before you got drunk," said Command Sgt. Maj. Calvin Coler, 174th Infantry Brigade senior enlisted advisor, to a packed class of at-risk teens recently.

His audience: the New Jersey Youth ChalleNGe Academy's newest candidates enrolled at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.

Coler's words and anecdotes from his life and upbringing focused around encouraging each individual to be his or her own person, making choices and taking responsibility for those decisions.

The candidates, ranging in age from 16-18, were beginning their fifth day in the 22-week academy. The NJYCA provides a highly-disciplined environment fostering high school graduation or equivalency, leadership development, community service, physical training and personal growth. The goal is to educate, train and refocus unemployed youth who have ceased attending traditional high school and help them become productive members of society.

"My main goal for having Command Sgt. Maj. Coler address the candidates," said Monique Christian, counselor with the NJYCA, "was to have someone who possibly had a similar experience as them and reinforce our message: discipline and hard work equals success; and that success is not always easy to come by."

Coler's story of growing up sounded familiar to the teens in the audience. Both of his parents worked constantly to make ends meet -- until his father left. After that, his mother provided for and raised all five children by herself.

"So at some point in time, we had to make our own decisions," said Coler. "Anybody ever heard of Angola State Penitentiary? My brother was in Angola for 17 years because of something he chose to do."

Coler encouraged the teens to always think in terms of cause and effect. He shared a moment in his early teens when he ended up in front of a judge with 11 other accomplices.

"I always thought about consequences except that one time," said Coler. "The judge said, 'We're going to give you one more chance,' and that's how I ended up in the youth challenge program myself."

The program at that time wasn't exactly the same as the current Youth ChalleNGe program, which the National Guard runs. While Coler was court-ordered to attend his program, all candidates in today's academy must enter voluntarily. They also go through an application and interview process prior to being accepted. They cannot have any legal involvements, including probation, parole or pending court matters; and they must be drug and alcohol-free.

Tamiyrah McCoy, an 18-year-old candidate from Trenton, N.J., said she came to the academy because she was held back early on in grade school by her mother and wanted a chance to finish high school with people closer to her age.

"I also need the discipline," said McCoy. "I go strong on motivation in the beginning and then I lack it. So I need the push all the way through so I can train myself to keep that drive and just keep on going, by coming here. It's hard work."

While McCoy isn't currently planning on joining the military after NJYCA, another candidate, Kory Cintron, from Salem, N.J., said he hoped his experience would help him move forward with a military career.

"I was trying to get into the National Guard," said Cintron, "so I figured if I came here I could get my diploma easier, quicker, and I can go into the National Guard before I hit 19. I just wanted to get off the streets and make my life better so I can be successful in life."

Cintron said hearing Coler speak about his life and accomplishments was motivating.

"I related to what he was saying because I'm the same way. I'm from the projects -- the hood-- and I was one of those boys who was trying to make it out," said Cintron.

Coler also shared motivators in his life. One was his high school girlfriend, who encouraged him to study and get good grades. The other was his mother.

"That picture," said Coler, pointing to the screen, "that's my mother, rest in peace. All that stuff I was doing, it didn't bother me. All that stuff my brother was doing, it didn't bother my brother. But that lady right there -- that's who it hurt. And we didn't even realize that."

This thought struck a chord with Cintron.

"My mom's not passed away," said Cintron, "but I'm going to take what he said and do it now. I want to make sure I don't disrespect my mom right now so we can be at peace when she does go away. So that's my motivation right there."

A large focus of the ChalleNGe program is academics. Coler shared that you can get where you want to be, no matter where you are now.

"I went from having something like a 1.5 GPA in high school, to having a Master's Degree, to now working on a Ph.D. But it's not about me," stressed Coler. "I'm sharing this with you to show you what can be done."

Coler said he seeks out this type of speaking opportunity because he enjoys the challenge of working with teens -- especially those who are trying to find solid direction in life.

"I like being able to share with youth how they can turn any negative into positive in their lives," said Coler.

He also believes it is his duty as a Soldier.

"I think everybody in uniform owes society something," said Coler. "Yes, we serve our country, but that service doesn't end with our fellow Soldiers in uniform. Service to our local communities comes with the territory of being a Soldier, and only one percent serves. That's a small percentage for the amount we have in the United States. So if that one percent is helping society, I think it would be a better place."

Page last updated Fri April 26th, 2013 at 11:47