ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Jan. 3, 2012) -- Hundreds of family members and guests watched as 98 cadets, who successfully met the requirements of the Maryland National Guard's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, marched across the stage to receive their certificates during a Completion Ceremony at the Post Theater here, Dec. 15.

The mission of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program is to intervene in and reclaim the lives of 16-to-18-year-old high school dropouts, producing program graduates with the values, life skills, education, and self-discipline necessary to succeed as productive citizens.

Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, adjutant general for the state of Maryland; Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz, commander, Joint Force Headquarters, District of Columbia National Guard; and guest speaker Maj. Gen. Leslie C. Smith, commander of the U.S. Army 20th Support Command, attended the ceremony.

Acting director Susan Wierzbicki gave welcoming remarks.

During his remarks, Smith offered himself as an example of what can be accomplished through hard work and perseverance, noting that he received his second star just 90 days prior on the very same stage.

"You have learned about the Army values; those values are the core of what we are, the blueprint of our future and they will help you maintain the self-discipline you learned here, " Smith said to the cadets.

He told them to challenge themselves by maintaining their core values and encouraged them to work toward their goals.

"Surround yourself with people who think like you," he said. "Whatever is in your past does not determine your future. I guarantee you will succeed in life if you take what you've learned here and apply it to your everyday lives."

The ceremony included the awarding of thousands of dollars in scholarships from area schools, community service organizations and businesses. It included nine $10,000 scholarships from Lincoln Tech and one $5,000 scholarship from Harford Community College, Md.

Cadet spokespersons Octavia Thompson and Derrick Randall shared personal accounts of their formerly "undisciplined" lives, and credited the academy with bringing about a positive change.

Thompson said she lacked discipline, respect for authority and had an overall bad attitude. She said all that faded away from her first day at the academy.

"Right at the beginning the cadre took over, telling us what to do and what to say," she said. "Freestate taught us to rely on ourselves. We learned how to march, but we also learned to focus on others. And for the first time in our lives we began to care about education and our future."

She said she has gained confidence in the life decisions facing her and that she plans to join the military or go to college.

"More than anything, I learned discipline and self control," she said. "We're all glad we came to Freestate to better our future. They helped us become better individuals."

Randall, who hails from Harford County, said the most significant transformation for him was his loss of more than 100 pounds. He said he weighed 410 pounds when he first heard about the academy in 2011.

"I looked into it and learned they did everything I did not want to do," he said, adding, "I feared failure."

From the beginning, however, he gained confidence, he said.

"My mother and my grandmother had faith that I was up to the challenge. I'm so glad I stayed. I now feel I'm on my way to a healthier future."

He added that he wants to become a psychiatrist to help young people like himself.

"Thanks to the academy cadre and staff we all made it," he said.

The Maryland Defense Force Band provided the program's music and its chaplain, Maj. Jonathan Morse, presented the invocation and benediction.