ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Jan. 14, 2016) --- More than 130 at-risk youth from across Maryland embarked on a journey to gain the education and life skills they need to lead productive lives through enrollment at the Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy during an in-processing event here, Jan. 10. FCA provides Maryland teens who have withdrawn from high school a fresh start. For 22 weeks, the teens, ages 16-18, voluntarily reside in the academy's military-style residential program where they complete academic coursework and learn life skills. Most students plan to take the General Educational Development test and some reenter high school after they complete the FCA.During in-processing the teens, now called candidates, submitted academic and medical paperwork, were issued uniforms, and received the FCA handbook. Later that day, male candidates received a military-style haircut.FCA Director Charles Rose said first the candidates enter a two-week acclimation phase, where they adjust to the new environment and if successful, they are officially accepted into the program during a crossover ceremony.In addition to challenging classwork, all candidates are required to complete at least 40 hours of community service. Some also participate in an optional vocational training program on the weekends."Candidates have to be mentally and emotionally ready to make a change," he said. "They are going to be away from their families. They need to understand that this is an opportunity."Rose said the structured, no-nonsense environment helps the teens focus on their studies. Distractions like video games, music, social media and cell phones are not allowed."We want them to focus on why they are here, and what responsibilities they have now and what they will have when they leave here," Rose said. "We tell them nothing is going to be easy; you have to earn everything that you get."He added that parents and family members often go through an adjustment phase, too. Candidates and family members are encouraged to write letters frequently.If [the candidates] know that there is someone at home that loves them, it is going to be easier for them," he said. "Family members can make a significant impact just by being supportive."Deangela Boone said she believes her younger sister, Candidate Latoka Boone, will succeed in the program."I am excited for her, to see her going through this process," she said. "I would like to see her come out of her shell and push herself harder to become the person that I know she can be. I know she has a bright future, I am so elated that she has this opportunity."Candidate Cyrus Williams said he is ready for a change."This is an opportunity for me to do something better," he said. "I feel like 2016 is my year because of this program. I want to make my mom and myself happy."Candidate Celea Reyes admitted that she is nervous about leaving her family. She plans to get through the program by focusing on her goals."I am here because I want a better future," she said.After graduating FCA, the teens enter a 12-month post-residential phase where they work closely with mentors in their community. Mentors encourage graduates to obtain employment, continue their education or enter the military.FCA has graduated more than 4,000 cadets since its inception in 1993. It is endorsed by the State of Maryland and is in a cooperative agreement between the Maryland National Guard and the National Guard Bureau. The academy is located on APG South (Edgewood). For more information visit http://freestatemil.maryland.gov/.### This story originally appeared in the Jan. 14, 2016 issue of the APG News.