Freestate celebrates achievements of Class #61

By Rachel PonderDecember 29, 2023

Cadets celebrate course completion
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy cadets applaud after receiving their course completion certificates.

(Photo Credit: Photo by Rachel Ponder, APG News )
Soldier congratulates cadet
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (From left) G-8 Director of Property and Fiscal Operations for the Maryland National Guard Col. Louis Waters Jr. congratulates Cadet Christian Funderburg after the completion ceremony for Class #61 held in the Havre de Grace Middle/High School auditorium Dec. 16, 2023. Funderburg met Waters while completing a job shadow assignment.

(Photo Credit: Photo by Rachel Ponder, APG News )

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. —Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy cadets in Class #61 celebrated completing the rigorous 22-week residential phase during a ceremony in front of family, staff members, mentors, and local leadership in the Havre de Grace Middle/High School auditorium Dec. 16, 2023.

During the residential phase, Maryland teens, ages 16-18, learn self-discipline and obtain the skills needed to become responsible, productive citizens in a military-style environment. Volunteers mentor the cadets and provide learning opportunities like job shadow experiences. During the year-long post-residential phase, mentors will continue to providing cadets with a support system as they seek employment, attend college, or join the military.

FCA director Michael Buffum welcomed attendees and thanked the leaders and volunteers who contributed to the program's success.

As a new director, Buffum said it had been an honor to become acquainted with the cadets; he observed their determination and dedication. He congratulated the 69 cadets who completed the residential program.

“Every obstacle, anything that has been in front of you, you have gotten past,” he said.

Adjutant General of Maryland Maj. Gen. Janeen L. Birkhead said the cadets made the consciously decided to come to the ChalleNGe program to take control of their future. She said she respects their commitment to the program and their strength.

“Resilience is a dynamic force that empowers you to face the change and face adversity, and face setbacks, frankly,” she said. Your resilience is a reason you have persevered and will be on the path to success, undaunted by whatever stands in your way.”

The guest speaker, Anthony Woods, Maryland Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said that as a young man, he decided to have a better life, so he committed himself to his education and was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Later, the military afforded him the opportunity to attend Harvard University and the University of Maryland.

“I hope that you would consider service,” Woods told the cadets. “You have proven, by graduating [from Freestate] that you have everything it takes to put on the uniform of this nation and succeed. I hope that you consider that, military service has changed my life fundamentally.”

Today, Woods continues to serve in the U.S. Army Reserve and holds the rank of major, assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

Woods said besides military service, cadets can give back to their community and country in many ways. For example, this fall, Maryland Governor Wes Moore launched the Service Year Option. Young adults participating in this program this gain skills through a service placement aligned with their interests and work with support coaches to develop their post-service plans.

“Continue to seek opportunities exactly like the one you just passed,” he said. “Choose the things that are a little more difficult, that will make you a little more uncomfortable, but are ultimately going to make you stronger for stepping out and giving it a try.”

The ceremony also included a presentation of awards, class speakers, and a presentation of course completion certificates.

After the ceremony, cadets returned their uniforms, received their GED test results, said goodbye to staff members, and greeted their families.

“I honestly feel great completing this course. I thought I wasn’t going to make it, but here I am,” said Cadet Athzyri Merino Hernandez, who is thinking about going to college and joining the Army. “I am going to keep improving even more.”

Freestate ChalleNGe Academy Foundation President Mary Jane Jernigan, who also serves as a Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army, said she always feels emotional watching the completion ceremony. She said when she hears how the cadets overcame personal challenges, she feels inspired.

“They have grit,” she said.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Foundation. Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, now located on APG South (Edgewood), was one of the 10 original states to begin a ChalleNGe Program. For more information, visit To learn more about the Service Year Option, visit

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