Fort Stewart, Ga., May 19, 2018 - The Georgia National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program hosted civic leaders and alumni during its 25th Anniversary Celebration and All Class Reunion at the Fort Stewart academy campus.
More than 50 civic and business leaders from across Georgia attended the celebration to learn more about the program and its impact on the state.
The YCP provides a second chance for at-risk 16-18-year-old youth with three academies located at Fort Stewart (Savannah), Fort Gordon (Augusta) and Milledgeville, Ga. The academies conduct a 22-week in-resident, military-like alternative education program that emphasizes structure, consistency, discipline, teamwork and self-improvement.
Over the course of 25 years, the Ga. National Guard's YCP has graduated more than 15,000 students in Georgia. In the last year alone, 485 earned either a high school diploma or certificate of high school equivalency. With additional opportunities for development after graduation, 55 percent of graduates enter the workforce, 40 percent continue with their education and a select few join military service.
"We can do in four months with the students of the academy what the schools do in nine," said Dr. Roger Lotson, director, Fort Stewart, Georgia Youth ChalleNGe Academy, "We are good at what we do."
Addressing civic leaders during the celebration, Lotson emphasized the character and leadership training that sets graduates apart from other high schools and programs.
"I'll put our graduates up against anybody in the state," said Lotson. "I know they are trained, drug-free, will show up to work on time, say 'yes sir' and 'no sir' and keep their pants pulled up."
Youth ChalleNGe Program graduates discussed the impact of the program on both their personal and professional lives. Some credited Youth ChalleNGe as the single most crucial factor in changing their lives for the better.
Churisse Jones of Fairburn, Ga., graduated from Fort Stewart's YCA Class 10, in 1998. She volunteered for the program after dropping out of high school and realized she needed to make a change. After graduating the YCA program with a GED, Jones continued to work on her college education graduating from Ashford University with honors and is currently a special education teacher at Fickett Elementary School in Atlanta.
"I learned who I was because of the YCA" said Jones. "Up to that point, I was looking for acceptance anywhere. YCA taught me to be successful; you have to have character. Life requires it. It doesn't matter how good your grades are if you have poor character, you will fail."
Jones was reunited with her former instructor, retired Georgia Army National Guardsman, Sgt. 1st Class Annie Powell, who, after 20 years, still serves at the YCA in the education department.
"Ms. Powell has been a mentor to me throughout the last 20 years," said Jones. "She has stayed in contact and we talk all the time about my goals."
The academies continue to adapt and update their programs to grow and develop their cadets. With the addition of the U.S Department of Labor-funded Job Challenge Academy, graduating cadets can qualify for a five-month residential program which mirrors the Ga. Youth ChalleNGe concept and offers students certifications or technical school credit through Savannah Technical College. To date, the Job Challenge Academy has completed three classes with 146 graduates. More than 80 percent of graduates have professional careers in different fields.
"Our students upon graduation from the resident course can take the lessons learned here and apply them in various vocational programs like medical assistant, the automotive field, and the culinary arts," said Lotson. "They are ready to be productive members of society."