EAGLE LAKE, Texas – Members of the Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force support the Texas ChalleNGe Academy with mentorship, life skills advice, and training to students and cadre during their acclimation phase at their campus.
The at-risk 16-18 years-old candidates come from various backgrounds throughout the state, which could lead to unfavorable futures, including drugs and crime, so service members and cadre give them a helping hand to succeed.
"Some of them have never had a positive role model, positive support, or even so much as an encouraging word from those they might come to respect," said Sgt. Jason Pope, a Counterdrug task force member supporting the ChalleNGe Academy's acclimation phase. "Demonstrating from day one what solid support looks like has enabled huge improvements in the attitude and bearing of the candidates."
Guard members are involved with everything for the academy, from assessing program procedures to teaching proper physical training techniques to inspect correct drills and ceremonies for cadre and students. These lasting memories help guide students to various service options after the academy.
"Counterdrug personnel makes a huge impact on the cadets," said Claudia Vela, a graduate and current Cadre Supervisor for the Texas ChalleNGe Academy. "They open their eyes to the opportunity of joining the military when they never even thought of it before. The staff and cadets remember the service members that helped them through the acclimation phase."
For many of the candidates, the five and a half month in-residence program is the first time they have been away from home and they are taking the adjustments in stride.
"There are a few dealing with harder cases of homesickness, or struggling to cope with the introduction of very strict structure and attention to detail," said Pope, "but in my opinion, they will all be just fine within the two-week acclimation period.
"Within only three days, an improvement in the candidates that neither the TCA cadre I work with nor I expected to see in this short of a timeframe."
Texas Counterdrug has been supporting TCA for about 20 years, so there is a positive relationship allowing for positive feedback and process improvement.
"The support they provide is beneficial to all staff," said Vela. "Being there to focus more on the program details helps cadre define what needs fine-tuning, and along the way, create bonds with the staff and cadets that make TCA such a unique and essential program.
"The Counterdrug Task Force assisting, are truly helping make a difference in someone's life."
Some Counterdrug task force members keep returning to support TCA as they know their message's impact.
"This will be my fifth or sixth time," said Master Sgt. Vanessa Renaker, a Counterdrug Assistant Team Leader. "These young men and women are our future leaders, generals, congressmen and women, and future decision-makers. Being here and knowing that they have at least one person that believes in them can go a long way."
TCA is an excellent opportunity to learn and adjust a mentor's way of thinking and work through obstacles for themselves and teach others through experience.
"TCA gives me insight into the perspective of others," said Pope, "and has taught me ways to manage my perception that I previously would not have done or known."
Additionally, being active service members helps ease the transition and opens doors to other candidates' possibilities.
"Being in a uniform, they gravitate towards us immediately," said Renaker, "always seeking our guidance and assurance. In some instances, we are the ones that can motivate them into staying with the program, becoming compliant and eventually graduating."
Part of being a leader is listening and being approachable to supervisors, peers and subordinates, and that is what Counterdrug task force members have experience doing.
"The candidates come to me with their fears, concerns and stresses, and most times, I have been able to steer them back into their training with a simple explanation," said Pope.
Building positive relationships is a large part of the program's process for each student.
"TCA is important to our students and cadets because the program gives them a chance to start fresh," said Vela. "It allows them to see who they are. They meet other teenagers from all across Texas that become family. They experience what gratitude feels like."
Vela reflects on her time as a cadet within the challenge program at 17 years old.
"I had never experienced the overwhelming support from individuals who didn't know me," said Vela. "I used everything I learned in my everyday life, even in raising my children and now I have the opportunity to share my testimony and experiences with the cadets that come through the program."
Even though the Guard members and cadre have never met the candidates before, they have a joy in making a positive difference in candidates' lives.
"I am proud of them as a person for making a genuine attempt to improve themselves and their lives," said Pope.
Counterdrug task force members and cadre must be passionate about TCA and what it represents to the candidates. One thing Vela tells each student is to embrace that passion.
"You love or hate me, but you will always remember me," says Vela. "You will hate that I wouldn't let you quit, or you're going to love that I never gave up on you."