ARLINGTON, Va. – The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program, which helps “at-risk” teens earn their high school diploma or GED, earned national recognition Aug. 31 during the 103rd American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee.
“After spending over almost 30 years in the military I had not heard of the ChalleNGe academy, and it really [has become] one of the programs I’m most proud of,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, the adjutant general of the Wisconsin National Guard, who accepted the 2022 National Education Award on behalf of the National Guard Bureau.
“I’ve been able to participate in the graduations, and if you can see the look on these kids’ faces and the pride that they have in graduating and receiving a diploma or a GED — and a way forward in life — it really is priceless,” said Knapp.
The voluntary 17-month program was established by the Guard in 1993 as a community-based initiative to lead, train and mentor young men and women 16 to 18 who are experiencing difficulty completing traditional high school so they may become productive citizens.
With each Youth ChalleNGe academy, a quasi-military approach to structure and discipline is used to build responsibility, accountability and a sense of purpose, said Jeff White, chief, NGB Youth Programs, which oversees the program.
While the goals and parameters of the program are set by the NGB, each academy tailors the specifics to meet its individual needs, White said. Academic standards and requirements at each academy are set by state and local education officials.
During his acceptance speech, Knapp said the Guard continues to be a quintessential fit for leading the ChalleNGe program, with the required infrastructure to support it already in place.
“The youth programs are consistent with our community support role, our domestic support role, and our state mission to the National Guard,” he said. “[We also have] trained personnel in areas of organization, planning, execution, discipline and leadership.”
Michael Westergren, national chairman of the Committee on Youth Education for the American Legion, said that when selecting the Youth ChalleNGe program as this year’s winner, his organization looked at the overall program and how it intercedes in the lives of juveniles who are in danger of dropping out of school.
“We are impressed by the pathways the program offers toward success, the scope of the program, and the number of programs offered throughout our country,” said Westergren. “We are especially pleased with the high success rate and [completion rate] in the program.”
Since its inception, approximately 272,300 teens have enrolled in the program, with more than 200,000 graduating — a 73-percent success rate, said Kimberly Folsom-Kuster, program manager.
Today, she said, there are 40 Youth ChalleNGe academies and seven Job ChalleNGe academies in 31 states and territories, with approximately 2,400 employees.
Although it is cost-free, the program isn’t easy. The days are long and the expectations high. The rules are many, the pushups frequent, and cadre members, many of whom are current Guard members or retired military members, are ever-present to provide the daily structure, focus and discipline.
Those who enroll in the program first undergo a 22-week residential phase focused on improving academic excellence, life skills, job skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, service to the community, leadership/followership, and physical fitness.
This is followed by a 12-month post-residential phase, where trained mentors support graduates in maintaining positive lifestyles. Mentors work with program participants after graduation to help enroll them in college or trade school, start a career, or join the military.
“I can only imagine that the rate of kids that would fall back into those old habits would be much higher without this mentorship program,” said Knapp, who ended his speech with a call to action.
“Reach out and see if you have a Youth ChalleNGe program in your state through the National Guard and help us find mentors,” he said. “As a life member of the American Legion myself, I know that this audience is filled with great Americans and great people, and if you’re looking for an additional way to help, being a mentor or helping us find mentors for the ChalleNGe academy would be hugely beneficial.”