PIERCE, Idaho – The Idaho Youth ChalleNGe Academy’s newest class of candidates is currently going through a two-week acclimation phase. During this phase, candidates are challenged to adapt to the program’s rigid schedule, strict rules and culture of personal accountability.
The academy conducts two classes each year. Idaho National Guard Soldiers and Airmen volunteer to supplement the academy’s full-time cadre to assist during its first phase in a state active duty status.
For most of the Soldiers and Airmen, this rotation is their first experience with the Youth ChalleNGe, though some Guard members have supported multiple acclimation periods at the academy.
For Pfc. Riley Ward, this semester’s rotation is his first as a cadre member, but he has extensive knowledge of the program’s goals and procedures. Ward graduated from the program as a cadet in 2018.
“When I graduated, I felt like it was just a matter of time before I came back in a U.S. Army uniform,” Ward said.
Ward enlisted into the Idaho Army National Guard in 2019 when he was 17. Though the academy offers cadets the chance to earn up to 14 high school credits, a diploma from the school, or a GED, Ward said he dropped out of high school shortly after returning home from the academy and earned his GED on his own.
Every cadet is paired with a mentor while they complete the 22-week residential phase. Ward’s mentor was Col. Dan Lister, the Idaho Army National Guard’s chief information officer and director of information management. Ward said Lister told him about the Idaho Army National Guard and the organization’s benefits.
“I liked the structure of the Youth ChalleNGe,” Ward said. “I figured it’d been stupid not to enlist since I thrived in the environment.”
Ward is a 25B information technology specialist assigned to Company Charlie, 116th Brigade Engineer Battalion. Ward lives in Nampa and drills in Boise at Gowen Field. Though Lister is the Idaho Army National Guard’s senior IT officer, Ward’s love of technology drove him toward the same career field as his mentor.
“When I was six, my dad sat me in front of an old Windows computer, and I fell in love with technology then,” he said. “It’s always been a passion. I figured I might as well do something I enjoy while I’m in the Army.”
Ward said he has received a lot of training in his career field and that he’s never had a bad day in the Army. He plans to attend college and work his way up to his dream job: the head of network security for Dell Technology.
Ward said he attended the academy after a series of behavioral issues got him in trouble with his parents.
“I was a piece of crap to my parents, and they had enough, so they sent me here,” he said.
Ward acknowledged he was doing things at the time he shouldn’t have been doing, though he was never charged with any crimes.
“I learned discipline at the academy,” he said. “That’s all I really needed. I knew what the right thing to do was; I just didn’t feel like doing it. I realized to be successful; I couldn’t be in trouble with the law. These are basic things everyone knows, but I refused to do.”
Since 2014, more than 1,300 students from nearly every county in Idaho have attended the academy. The program is free for 16 to 18-year-old students who are at risk of dropping out of high school or who already have. Cadets attend a 22-week residential program in Pierce, Idaho. They remain part of the program for the following 12 months to ensure students stay on track to continue their education or find employment.
There are 40 Youth ChalleNGe academies throughout the country, which each state’s National Guard runs.
Nearly 80 percent of the Idaho Youth ChalleNGe Academy’s cadets return to their high school back on track to graduate with their class after completing the residential program. Another 10 percent earn their GED, while the remaining 10 percent earn enough credits to graduate from the academy with a high school diploma. Approximately 10 percent of the program’s graduates have joined the military, though the academy is not a military school and military service is not required for attendance.
“Since I did exactly what they are doing now, I have a better feeling of what candidates are going through as they adjust to the academy,” Ward said. “A lot of them are coming off stuff and are in a new environment. I know exactly what that feels like. I feel more equipped to help them with whatever they need to do.”