Military and community leaders, family members, cadre and guests gathered to honor 85 young men and women who successfully completed 22 weeks of rigorous training during the Maryland National Guard (MDNG) Military Youth Corps Freestate ChalleNGe Academy Completion Ceremony at the APG post theater June 13.
During opening remarks Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the first female and African American to hold the post of MDNG adjutant general, said FCA benefits Maryland because cadets graduate from the program with the desire to be productive citizens.
She congratulated the cadets for reaching this milestone and she urged them to continue on the path of excellence.
"This program has given you an opportunity to say 'I am going to be somebody,'" Singh said. "It has given you the opportunity to take your life in any direction you want it to go. Don't waste it. Don't go back to your old ways. Let that be in the past."
The keynote speaker was former professional basketball player Ernie Graham. A Baltimore native, Graham set the single game scoring record at the University of Maryland in 1978 with 44 points in 25 minutes of play. Graham was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, but instead opted to play 13 years of international basketball.
Unfortunately drugs hampered Graham's basketball career.
"I let a lot of people down, most of all myself," he said.
Graham said he had a difficult time quitting drugs even though they were ruining his life.
"I believed the people who told me I could stop drugs whenever I wanted to," he said, adding that eventually, he sought treatment for his addiction. Graham encouraged cadets to surround themselves with like-minded, positive people.
"After I sought treatment I couldn't go to the same places and I couldn't hang out with the same people," he said.
He advised the cadets to make careful decisions when they return home, and to be consistent.
"All this hard work could go down the tube with just one bad decision," he said.
Graham shared that his son Ernie Graham Jr., is a graduate FCA and enlisted in the Maryland National Guard.
"He is doing terrific right now," he said. "It wasn't easy for him, but he was able to turn his life around [after] coming here."
The program included personal accounts of achievement from Class #44 speakers, Cadets Adiegh Bynum and Enifae Adebiyi. FCA Director Charles Rose, Singh, Graham and FCA 1st Sgt. Job Stringfellow presented certificate and awards.
After the ceremony, Cadet Ruben Solorzano said his future plans include joining the U.S. Air Force.
"I feel like I am really accomplished, like I can set forward and do great things," he said. "There were times when I wanted to give up, but I couldn't because my family was really depending on me to finish the program."
His sister Samantha Solorzano said she will continue to support him and provide guidance.
"We are all so proud of him," she said.
Bynum said she also hopes to join the Air Force.
"There were times when I wanted to give up, when I didn't have confidence in myself," Bynum said. "Now I have much more confidence."
Her mother Kim Rice, from Montgomery County, called the FCA program an "amazing journey."
"It feels great to see her graduate, I am so proud of her," she said. "I am thankful; the program made a tremendous impact, and I have seen a total turnaround in 22 weeks. I highly recommend this program."
During the ceremony, several cadets received monetary awards and scholarships from supporting organizations and educational institutions.
Maryland teens enrolled in FCA are considered "at risk youth" who have dropped out of high school and are looking for a fresh start. The 22-week, residential program features a structured, disciplined military-style environment. After graduation, cadets work closely with mentors during the year-long post residential phase.
In addition to preparing cadets for the General Education Development (GED) test, FCA instruction focuses on raising their Tests of Adult Basic Education, or TABE, scores. Cadets are tested at the beginning of the cycle and at the end and must increase their TABE scores to graduate.
Rose said that he was happy to report that the Class #44, on average, increased over four grade levels.
"Bottom line is, this has been a successful class," Rose said. "They persevered and succeeded."
Rose added that FCA has graduated more than 4,000 cadets since the program first started in 1993.
He thanked APG Senior Commander Maj. Gen. Bruce T. Crawford and APG Garrison Commander Col. Gregory R. McClinton for their continued support of FCA.
Special awards and scholarships:
Cadet of the Cycle, Jennifer Benitez
Most Improved Cadet, Maurice Allen Jr.
Commandant Award for Leadership, Lawrence Reeves
FCA Academic Excellence Award, Javier Duran
FCA Physical Fitness Award, Xzavier Thompson and Dylan Hayes
Rotary Club of Towson, Daryl Hubbard
Nancy H. Sevier Scholarship, Hannah Pagano
Maryland National Guard Foundation, Tyler Welcher
PEDRO 66 Award, Philbert Fisher Jr.
Edward St. John Foundation, Avante Douglas
Raytheon Corporation, DeMarcus Covington
Maj. Gen. Harry Greene Aberdeen Chapter of the Association of the United States Army, Jennifer Benitez
Maryland National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Foundation, Edward Diaz, DeAndre' Jacob, Aurea Showell and Lawrence Reeves
Harford Community College, Benjamin Illioff