ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - With heads held high after meeting the ChalleNGe of their young lives, 116 cadets received certificates of completion during commencement ceremonies of the Maryland National Guard's Military Youth Corps Freestate ChalleNGe Academy at the Post Theater Dec. 10.

Hosted by MDNG Col. Richard Knauer, the academy's special projects officer, and retired MDNG Col. Richard "Thunder" Young, the ceremony included the awarding of scholarships from area educational institutions and special achievement awards from the academy.

Guests included Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, APG senior leader and commander of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, and Col. Orlando Ortiz, APG Garrison and deputy installation commander. Honorary guests and award presenters included Maj. Gen. Errol Schwartz, commander Joint Forces, District of Columbia National Guard; Brig. Gen. Annette Deener, chief of staff, Maryland Military Department; and Owen Johnson, director, Capitol Guardian Youth ChalleNGe Program; Ernie Gonzalez from the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs; Clarence "Tiger" Davis, former Maryland delegate and keynote speaker retired MDNG Brig. Gen. Alberto Jimenez.

Before introducing Jimenez, Deener recognized Ortiz and the Garrison staff for their continued support of the program which provides a second chance for at-risk youth and high school dropouts to become productive members of society. Many either enter college or the military after graduation, she noted.

"You have proven that you are in control of your life and you have made a commitment to succeed," she told the cadets. "Today is the first day of the rest of your lives."

Jimenez also thanked Ortiz and the Academy staff and cadre, calling them "unique in the ability to produce young men and women like this."

To the family members and mentors, who will continue to monitor the cadets' progress for 12 months beyond their graduation, Jimenez advised, "We gave them Army tough love. Hopefully, they can instill in others the same discipline.

"Everything you do, from now on, do it with dignity," he told the cadets. Resist temptation to do wrong and go forward with your lives. Nothing will be given to you; you have to earn it. May this day be the beginning of your path to success to become productive U.S. citizens."

Class spokespersons, Cadets Harly Ventura and Scott Peteraf shared their stories about how the academy has changed them.

Ventura said her parents had given up trying to correct her behavior and that she felt blessed to receive "this second chance."

"It has rearranged my priorities and given me the realization that seeking self-improvement is more important than tending to my social life," she said.

Noting his failure to complete school due to a greater interest in street life, Peteraf, who hails from Havre de Grace, thanked his parents for helping him obtain a "court-free" status so he could enter the academy.

"I realized I would have to make up for years of mistakes in the next five months," he said, "and I was a different person once it started."

He said he learned all he could, including participation in the drill team and job shadowing programs, to graduate with honors. He enrolled in Harford Community College and said his plans include attending a four-year university ROTC program to become an Army officer.

Addressing the academy staff, cadre and volunteer mentors, he said, "On behalf of all cadets, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the past and for the impact you will have on us over the next year."

Chaplain (Maj.) Jonathan Morse delivered a stirring invocation and benediction that had the cadets and audience shouting "God is good all the time!"

The Maryland Defense Force Band provided the ceremony's music.

Top ChalleNGe Academy awards went to the following:

Leadership, Cadet JaJun Lee

Most Improved, Cadet Emmanuel Dadzie

Cadet of the Cycle, Cadet Colin Clarke

Academic Excellence, Cadet Yeny Guevara

Physical Fitness, Cadets Ruben Madrid and JaJun Lee

Scholarship presentations

Prince Georges Community College, $6,000 scholarship

Harford Community College, $5,000 scholarship

Maryland National Guard Foundation, $1,000 scholarship

Towson Rotary Foundation, Inc., $1,000 scholarship

Nancy H. Sevier Award, $1,000 scholarship

Pedro 66 (Afghanistan Memorial), $1, ooo scholarship

ChalleNGe Academy (Academic Excellence), six $1,000 scholarships