FORT MCCOY, Wis. - State legislators from across Wisconsin met with cadets and staff from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy Nov. 29 to gain a better understanding of the program and the youth who participate in the program.
Challenge Academy is a two-phase program - a 22-week residential phase and a 12-month post-residential mentoring phase designed to assist at-risk youth change their course in life and obtain their High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED). The program also includes character development, leadership, and anger and stress management.
The legislators received an overview of the program from staff, toured the campus, and met with staff and cadets.
“The best part was hearing the stories of the kids we talked to and hearing about how the program has changed them for the better,” said state Rep. Joel Kitchens of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. “It sure seems like it’s going to make a difference in the rest of their lives.
“I plan to encourage more schools to think of this program more frequently,” Kitchens added, “because you can see this is a tremendous opportunity for kids to turn their lives around.”
The overall mission of the Challenge Academy is to offer cadets the opportunity to develop the strength of character and life-skills necessary to become successful, responsible citizens.
“I think as you talk to the kids privately, the fact that they enjoy the discipline and the accountability and the expectation … I think we undersell our kids,” said state Rep. John Macco of Green Bay, Wisconsin. “They have much more capability than we give them credit for, and these kids are an example of it. They rise to that level of expectation. For many of these kids it’s the first time anyone has had that level of expectation of them, and when challenged, they rose to it.”
Both males and females may voluntarily participate in the program, but participants must meet certain criteria: cadets must be between the ages of 16 years and nine months and 19 years old, have no felony charges or convictions, and have a legal residence in Wisconsin.
“I believe the Challenge Academy is a great opportunity for young adults to have a second chance in life,” explained Cadet Bradley Makuski of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. “It opens you to a variety of education opportunities and gives you a better outlook on life.”
The program follows a quasi-military environment focused on discipline, order, and respect to challenge the cadets physically, mentally and emotionally.
“It was great to see what the military is doing to bring young people, men and women, into the stream of life, said State Rep. Ken Skowronski of Franklin, Wisconsin, who chairs the Veterans and Military Affairs committee.
This program helps prove that taking youth out of a negative environment helps them become responsible citizens, he added.
“The Challenge Academy is a very structured and organized way to learn life lessons early on, along with obtaining your HSED and furthering your education,” said Cadet Hope McGovern of Tomah, Wisconsin. “It helps you set up a plan for after graduation when you’re kind of stuck and around certain negative influences and you really don’t know where to go. The Challenge Academy is a great place to help direct you in the correct way and give you guidance when you don’t know where to go.”
During a question-and-answer session, Macco asked the cadets why they volunteered to participate in the Challenge Academy program.
“I was making the wrong decisions and not making my family proud,” said Cadet Yannelle Diaz of Green Bay. “I knew that this was the right opportunity for me to get my HSED and be successful. The first two weeks were very challenging. I thought about going home, but realized it wasn’t worth it. I came here to better myself and not give up. I kept pushing myself to get through and make it to graduation day.
After graduation in mid-December, Diaz plans to join the Army and become a nurse.
More than 3,500 cadets have graduated from the Wisconsin Challenge Academy program since it began in 1998. Twenty-eight states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia operate Challenge Academy programs.
The Wisconsin Challenge Academy appeared to make an impression on State Sen. Patrick Testin of Stevens Point.
“It’s been fantastic to see the incredible work these young men and women are doing to better themselves, to make themselves more prepared for the next step, and really taking ownership of themselves,” Testin said. “We need to make sure there are more opportunities like this for at-risk youth - that way, no one falls through the cracks. This is an incredible program and an example of how in Wisconsin, we’re leaders.”
This year, the Wisconsin program will conduct its 40th class and celebrate 20 years of helping Wisconsin’s youth become successful, responsible citizens. Nationally, the National Guard Youth Challenge Program will celebrate 25 years and has helped more than 150,000 youth since 1993.
“The motto for this year’s celebration, ‘25 Years of Challenge – A Lifetime of Change,’ optimizes the accomplishments, value, and essence of this incredible program,” said Kevin Greenwood, Wisconsin Challenge Academy director. “Challenge not only impacts cadets while they are in the program – graduates spend the rest of their lives building off of the foundation the program helped them construct so they can lead successful, productive lives.”
Greenwood shared ideas about how to learn more about the program.
“To see some of the amazing stories, testimonials and accomplishments our past graduates and current cadets are achieving, anyone can access the internet, Facebook, or other social media sources and simply search for Wisconsin Challenge Academy or National Guard Youth Challenge,” Greenwood said. “As well, if anyone wishes to learn more about what the programs have to offer, entrance criteria, how to become a mentor, or to become involved in other ways, they can search any one of the 40 programs or call the numbers provided on the states sites.”