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Fifth in a series

MAUSTON, Wis. - One hundred teens once at risk of not graduating high school stood ready to take back control of their lives following the completion of a 22-week residential program at the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy.

"Cadets of Class 35, today is your day," said Kevin Greenwood, Wisconsin Challenge Academy director.

Since beginning the program in July, the cadets have collectively spent more than 23,100 hours in the classroom earning 269 "A" grades. They collectively marched 15,000 miles to class and lost a total of 950 pounds, with one cadet losing 90 pounds. Each cadet averaged 75 hours of community service, and 27 cadets read a book from cover to cover for the first time.

But prior to joining Challenge Academy, the teens were struggling with poor life choices. The rigorous program at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, uses a quasi-military environment to instill core values and discipline that will better enable cadets to choose the hard right over the easy wrong.

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Keynote speaker Matt Levatich, president and chief operating officer of Harley-Davidson Motor Company, expressed his pride in the cadets for the choice they made to attend Challenge Academy, and the subsequent choices to stick with that choice.

"In my view, life is the choices we make," Levatich said. "Every minute of every day we choose: Do this or do that. Get up or rest some more. Try harder or slack off. Do the right things or cut corners."

Levatich invoked Yogi Berra’s quote, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," saying the humorous advice offered useful guidance.

"Every minute of every day you are encountering forks in your road - opportunities to go one direction or another," Levatich said. "My challenge to you is this: Do you have your head up and your eyes open to see the forks in the road, all the choices you have the opportunity to make. Or is your head down, thinking the path you’re on is the only path there is?

"Remember your choice to come here. That took courage - that took wisdom," he continued. "Wake up each day and choose to make a difference. The forks are there - this is your road. This is your life. The choices are all there, and they are yours to make - they are not someone else’s to make for you."

Cadet Troy Gardipee, the distinguished honor graduate, echoed that thought.

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"It took courage to come to the Challenge Academy, and even more to finish," he said. "I can remember lying in my rack the second week of pre-Challenge telling myself ‘tomorrow I will quit’ because I didn’t know what I could achieve. I didn’t know my potential. How could I have known? All I was thinking about was leaving to go back home to my family.

"The next morning during training, I sat on my bunk," Gardipee continued. "That was it - I was quitting. A counselor convinced me to stick it out until A-Day. So I did my corrective action, and by the time I returned four other candidates had given up because they saw me sit down. They saw me quit. Those cadets are not here with us today. That has stayed with me since the second week of pre-challenge, how much our decisions affect those around us."

Greenwood urged the families and friends of the graduating cadets to continue encouraging them after the residential phase.

"We all need to be the right example for these young men and women," Greenwood explained. "Just as we tell them to choose the hard right over the easy wrong, so must we. We must be that example these cadets want to follow and emulate. They’ve earned it.

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"This academy is about character, because life is about character," he continued. "The guiding principle of making more right choices and less wrong choices is our strength of character. Remember, your character can be fragile, and it will always be challenged by what’s out there in that world we live in. Maintaining your character is a life-long process - not just the five and a half months of the Challenge Academy. You came here to make changes, and changes were made. You showed you had the courage to change."

Candace Skenandore, a proud mentor for Cadet Andriann Phillips, agreed.

"Since she’s been here, she’s been a lot more positive about a lot of things," Skenandore said of Phillips. "She wants her future to be better."

 


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