ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Military and community leaders, Family members, cadre and guests gathered to honor the 99 young men and women from Class 38 who successfully completed 22 weeks of rigorous training during the Maryland National Guard's (MDNG) Military Youth Corps Freestate ChalleNGe Academy commencement ceremony at the APG post theater June 16.

Hosted by retired MDNG Col. Richard Knauer, the academy's special projects officer, and retired MDNG Col. Richard "Thunder" Young, the academy's director, the ceremony included the awarding of scholarships and savings bonds from local businesses, educational institutions and community organizations. Cadets received a total of $156,000 in scholarships and savings bonds during the graduation ceremony and during an award ceremony held at the APG North recreation center June 12.

Special guests in attendance included APG and CECOM Commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Ferrell and CECOM Command Sgt. Maj. Kennis Dent. Award presenters included the Director, Joint Staff for the District of Columbia National Guard Brig. Gen. Kenny Ricket; Assistant Adjutant General for Maryland Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Allyson R. Solomon; and the Director of the Capitol Guardian Youth ChalleNGe Program, Owen Johnson.

Young thanked Col. Orlando Ortiz and the Garrison staff for their continued support of the program. Located on APG, the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy provides a second chance for at-risk youth and high school dropouts to become productive members of society. During the five month, quasi-military residential program, cadets learn self-discipline and leadership skills while they prepare for the General Educational Development Test. The Freestate ChalleNGe Academy is endorsed by the state of Maryland in a cooperative agreement between the MDNG and the National Guard Bureau.

"These are youth who at one point in their lives were headed down the wrong path," Ortiz said, "who are now completing something significant, something positive, that will hopefully serve as a stepping stone for complete success for them individually and for our nation."

Ortiz commended the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy staff, mentors, and all who contribute to the success of the program.

"They reinforce a message, and the message to you should be that you matter," he said. "Your success is our nation's success."

Ortiz challenged the cadets to continue achieving their goals. He instructed the cadets to let discipline and integrity factor into all that they do.

"I salute you for taking advantage of this challenge and making it to this point, but remember this is only the beginning," he said.

Solomon also gave words of encouragement to the graduates.

"Life is about choices. By choosing to become part of Freestate ChalleNGe, it meant that you were choosing success," Solomon said. "Embrace what you learned here as solid gold for your future."

Class spokespersons, Madelin Rubio-Aragon and Seth Carrington, shared how the academy changed their lives.

Carrington said that after making some bad decisions, he decided that he had to do something extraordinary to regain the respect of his Family.

"Sometimes you have to do the hard thing to get where you want to go," Carrington said. "It feels good to do the right thing, to have my parents say 'I am so proud of you.'"

Rubio-Aragon said that her grades suffered and she was bullied in school because English is not her first language. She said that the encouragement she received from her mentor gave her the confidence to succeed during the program. "I wanted to show my Family that I am capable of doing anything I set my mind to do," she said.

"In twenty-two weeks I have grown up so much. The little girl who had so many hopes and dreams is back. "

The Maryland Defense Force Band provided the ceremony's music.
Top ChalleNGe Academy awards went to the following:
Cadet of the Cycle, Cadet Jawon McGill
Academic Excellence, Cadet Stevonne Craig
Leadership, Cadet Jonathan Amparo
Physical Fitness, Cadets Timothy Hurley Jr. and Madelin Rubio-Aragon
Most Improved, Cadet Tony Walker
Scholarship presentations
The Aberdeen Chapter of the Association of the United States Army, $1,000 awarded to Cadets Alicia Hines and Destin Byas
Maryland National Guard Foundation, $1,000 scholarship awarded to Cadet Nathanael Farmer
Towson Rotary Foundation, Inc., $1,000 scholarship awarded to Cadet Aaron Olivas
Nancy H. Sevier Award, $1,000 scholarship awarded to Cadet Stephanie Fikes
Pedro 66 Scholarship, $1,000 awarded to Cadet Jawon McGill
Harford Community College, $5,000 scholarship awarded to Cadet Seth Carrington
DRS Scholarship, 1,000 awarded to Cadet Jonathan Amparo
Lockhead Martin Scholarship, $1,000 awarded to Cadet Dylan Fuller
National Guard Youth Foundation Scholarship, $1,000 awarded to Cadet PabloVivar-Guzman
Bo Conway Scholarship, $1,000 awarded to Cadet Shean Smith

Lincoln Technical Institute, $10,000 scholarships awarded to Cadets William Charney, Howard Jones, Ginie Marcano, Collin Redwine, Jessina Reyes-Gomez, Benjamin Rojas-Hernandez, Madelin Rubio-Aragon, Zachary Sutphin, Patrick Willen, Kevin Argueta, Carlito Thompson, Ronald Stone, Justin Morris and Patrick Duffy.