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One hundred and three at-risk teens from counties across Wisconsin graduated from a challenging 22-week program June 11 with the tools to make better life decisions and persevere through problems.

The Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy takes teens out of an environment where bad choices were easy to make, and houses them for more than five months at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. The quasi-military setting builds positive values through physical and mental discipline, and transforms at-risk teens into cadets.

Roland Pechie, a senior team leader at Challenge Academy and keynote speaker for the June 11 graduation ceremony at Mauston High School in Mauston, Wisconsin, used a rock quarry metaphor to explain the tough environment the teens came from and the condition in which they arrived — a mass of imperfect rock.

We have a purpose for this imperfect rock,” Pechie said. It is to provide them with the skill sets to become an immediate productive member of society, a successful, responsible citizen. Not perfect, but a positive change.”

Pechie referred to jackhammers, claw hammers, ball-peen hammers and chisels in a series of refining metaphorical tools to remove the rough edges from imperfect rocks until only small imperfections remained. Citing the proverb about requiring a village to raise a child, he described three parts of the Challenge Academy village — the staff, the cadets and the families.

For today’s purpose, ladies and gentlemen, we are the village,” Pechie said. Everyone present today at this graduation ceremony, we are the village. We’d best invest in those before us today, for they are the future leaders of our towns and our communities.

They need positive reinforcement, as we all do,” he continued. Be kind with them. Let go of any and all previous disappointments. Lift them up. Give them hope. They can overcome.”

Michael Murphy, director of the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy, echoed that sentiment by asking a favor of the families and friends in attendance.

Do not be a negative influence, that naysayer, that destroyer of dreams,” Murphy said. Be the opposite — be kind, be uplifting, be supportive.”

Suzy Jasek of Hayward, Wisconsin, understands that. She has helped mentor Damien Heath since January, and will continue to do so as he begins the 12-month post-residential phase of the academy.

Sometimes you just need people to believe in you and try to keep the inner strength going for each other,” Jasek said. I think Damien’s learned the same thing as well, that there are people willing to back him up and stay strong for him.”

She described how Heath went from a student struggling with school and commitments to someone who will return to high school for his senior year, and play for the school football team.

I think he’s grown a ton from it,” she said. We’re excited to cheer him on.”

Jamal Perry of Milwaukee also saw considerable growth in Jameel Abuwi, the Challenge Academy teen he mentored.

Before he started Challenge Academy he was very unsure of himself as far as what he’s going to be doing after high school and beyond, really — he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life,” Perry said. Now he definitely has a better direction as far as what he wants to do in the immediate future. He’s got that five, 10-year plan versus having no idea whatsoever.

Also, he has more self-confidence as well — more outspoken, more sure, more confident,” Perry continued, and I think that will help him throughout his life. He’s grown quite a bit. It’s definitely been a positive experience for him.”

Abuwi was recognized as an honor cadet at the beginning of the ceremony.

Lubna Assad, the Class 34 distinguished honor graduate, spoke about no longer investing time and energy regretting what might have been, and instead investing in positive change. She agreed that it takes a village to raise a child, but a village is made of individuals with choices.

Ultimately, if you want to be successful in your life, it is up to you,” she said. This takes discipline. It took discipline to step away from family and friends and take on one of the hardest jobs we’ve ever handled at the Challenge Academy.

From now on, we will be able to take all we have learned wherever we go,” Assad continued. We have learned to be adaptable, to take different routes. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we won’t forget today.”

Pechie said the graduating cadets had learned to overcome fear, addictions, prejudices, personal circumstances — and themselves.

Here and now, they are ready to return home,” Pechie said. They will never be the same. Families, the heavy lifting now belongs to you. Love them to death — the true challenge begins now. We return then to you safe and secure. They have been trained.”