MAUSTON, Wisconsin - The 32nd class of the Wisconsin National Guard's Challenge Academy celebrated their graduation at Mauston High School here June 12.
The graduating class is the largest in Challenge Academy history, with 120 cadets receiving their diplomas. The class initially started out with 176 cadets in January.
"For most kids, this is their last chance," explained Keith Krueger, deputy director of the Challenge Academy program. "It's amazing to see how much they grow when they're here, but it's up to them how far they go. They need to find it within themselves to change."
He explained that the Challenge Academy, which is based at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, is designed to help troubled youth, who may not be doing well with their life choices. The goal is to get them back on track for success. They're given leadership opportunities, classes, military discipline and ultimately earn the equivalent of a high-school diploma.
"It turned my life around and gave me an appreciation for things I used to take for granted," said Matthew Kuss, one of the honor graduate cadets at the academy.
His friend and distinguished honor graduate, Skyler Luger, added that, "You learn to actually want the satisfaction of achieving something. You don't want to cheat anymore. You really want to earn it."
Among the many senior leaders from the Wisconsin Guard that attended the graduation ceremony was retired Col. Carl Olson, who over the years has become one of the Challenge Academy's biggest supporters. Olson was also the keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony. He's written two books, and frequents events around Wisconsin as a motivational speaker.
"Everyone has done their job, but now we all have to pull together to move on through," he told the graduating class, using a series of rope magic tricks to demonstrate that no matter how long something seems, it will all even out in the end.
Including those who were graduating and their families, cadets who previously graduated joined in the celebration as well.
"After I got out, I started to go back to my old ways at first," said Tyrone Parker, a previous graduate of the Challenge Academy now serving with the Wisconsin Air National Guard.
"This place gave me the strength though to bounce back and change, so long as I took the initiative," he said.
Olson left the cadets with a motivating message. "I, and everyone else in this room, are now going to give you the world. Go, and show us what you can do with it."
The Challenge Academy program combines a rigorous physical training regimen with community service and military and academic discipline. As graduates, each alumnus will continue to maintain contact with a mentor during the 12-month post-residential phase. More than 2,800 Wisconsin teenagers have completed the program since its inception.
The Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy is for Wisconsin residents only, takes place at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin, and is for anyone between the ages of 16-18. The next class starts July 24, and runs through December. For more information, contact Challenge Academy Admissions at (608) 269-4605.