WASHINGTON - Hundreds of young people across the nation ended 2023 by graduating from Youth ChalleNGe Academy programs that provide discipline and education to set at-risk teenagers on a path to success.
In Boise, Idaho, more than 120 high school students graduated from the program Dec. 16 — the same day the Wisconsin ChalleNGe Academy celebrated the graduation of its 51st class of 97 cadets from 33 counties.
Through a rigorous blend of academics, physical training, leadership development and character-building activities, the quasi-military Defense Department program — implemented by the National Guard Bureau — instills in cadets the values and skills to transition to adulthood.
“Each of us will face struggles and adversity in the days ahead,” Nathaniel Duran, Distinguished Honor Graduate of the Wisconsin program, told fellow graduates. “But I am confident that we will choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong because of the lessons we learned together.”
Vanessa Torres attended the ceremony in Baraboo, Wisconsin, to celebrate the graduation of her sister, Thanya Torres-Garcia.
“I saw a completely different person when she came home for Thanksgiving,“ Torres said. “Our conversations were open, honest and positive about her new direction in life. I could see that the ChalleNGe Academy was teaching her how to handle obstacles and move forward mentally and physically toward her goals. We are so proud of her.”
In Tacoma, Washington, Dec. 15 was graduation day for 134 cadets attending the voluntary 22-week residential "boot camp" that transforms at-risk teens into confident, capable young adults while allowing them to earn lost high school credits and get back on track to graduate.
Cadet Corporal Ethan Sands from Vancouver, Washington, struggled initially but found his way and demonstrated the kind of growth and improvement many of the graduating students exhibit.
“I learned so much from this program and so happy I came here,” he said during his speech to the audience. “I’m so grateful for the cadre and staff for motivating me to stay here.”
Following graduation, cadets return to their communities to finish high school or chase career goals through job corps, education, the military and more.
"I'm actually going to join the Army," said Breonna Brown, one of 69 graduates of the Maryland Freestate ChalleNGe Academy program. "I'm going to be in school for social work. I'm probably going to be doing a little bit of public speaking, maybe help kids and pursuing their dreams cause it was really hard for me to pursue my own dreams because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was very much a follower. ... Freestate taught me how to be a leader."
Idaho cadet Chase Hayden was glad he persevered through the long days.
“After trying to run away at the beginning of the program, I am an example of having to channel your fears and not letting your failures impede your future progress,” Hayden said. “And now that I am here at the end of this five-month journey, I can look back and say I am proud of myself and my fellow cadets.”
After her mother got sick during her time at the Idaho academy, cadet Emali Steffy returned to finish in her mother’s honor.
“I worked my butt off to get this far and there is no way I was turning back,“ Steffy said. “I accomplished so many things. ... I became a leader and gained a voice. I got healthier, mentally and physically. I earned 15 high school credits in only 22 weeks. I made friends and gained connections. My family became closer and became one. And I made so many people proud.”
Jim Hill, the principal of the Idaho program, said the class excelled academically, with eight cadets earning their GED diploma and 11 their high school diploma.
“I always explain to the cadets that education is something that can never be taken away from you,” Hill said.
In Wisconsin, cadets were immersed in a highly structured environment at Fort McCoy, typically starting their days at 5:20 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m., with no TV, cellphones or video games.
Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead, SEA to the chief, National Guard Bureau, encouraged the Wisconsin grads to embrace their new direction.
“You decided that who you were was not who you wanted to be, because you recognized your own potential,” Whitehead said. “You wanted more from life, and it required courage and strength to raise your hand and ask for help. Not many people do that, and I applaud you. Today you are surrounded by family and friends, not only to celebrate your incredible transformation but to support and encourage you as you begin this next chapter in your life.”
Contributing: Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur, Idaho Army National Guard; Jason Kriess, Joint Force Headquarters - Washington National Guard; Thomas Beckman, Wisconsin National Guard Public Affairs Office; Staff Sgt. Chazz Kibler, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Maryland National Guard