MAUSTON, Wis. — Gratitude resonated in Mauston High School’s auditorium as 108 cadets graduated from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy in a graduation ceremony Dec. 16, 2017.
The cadets completed the 22-week residential phase of the Challenge Academy program where they lived full-time at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. They now enter the post-residential phase of the program where a community mentor helps guide them back into everyday life with the lessons and skills they learned at the academy.
The mission of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program is to intervene in and reclaim the lives of 16-18 year-old ‘at-risk’ youths, producing program graduates with the values, life skills, education, and self-discipline necessary to succeed as productive citizens. Wisconsin offers the cadets the opportunity to develop the strength of character and life skills necessary to become successful, responsible citizens.
The keynote speakers at the graduation ceremony expressed thanks to the cadets, the staff, the parents and the state of Wisconsin for contributing to the cadets’ success in the program.
John McHugh, the director of communications for Kwik Trip, Inc., shared an anecdote about accompanying his grandmother on a cruise. The trip took on a strange tone when it came to light that she inadvertently booked a cruise for couples.
McHugh shared that even though the trip was not what he expected, it was important to realize it was still a gift for which to be grateful.
“All of us in this room, especially the cadets, can say that life did not come wrapped how we wanted it to,” said McHugh.
McHugh expressed gratitude to the cadets for proving that our pasts do not have to define us.
Ashleigh Thurman graduated as honor graduate after exceeding expectations in the Challenge Academy. Her speech followed McHugh’s and echoed many of his sentiments.
“I want to thank the teachers, staff, parents and everyone else,” said Thurman. “Without your love and support we could not have made it this far.”
The program provides supportive, positive influences in both the residential and post-residential phases. Graduates are monitored for one year by National Guard Youth Challenge staff to ensure their success in high school, a career, college, or the military is progressing.
Cadet Carmichael Gatling kept in touch with his mentor during the residential part of the program through letters, and he and his mentor plan to have regular face-to-face meetings over the next year.
Kristina Price, a mother of one of the cadets, said the changes she sees in her son are astounding.
“The only thing that is the same about him is his name,” said Price. “He has changed in every way. He is now calm, respectful and patient.”
The Wisconsin Challenge Academy is a nationally recognized program, earning a nationwide “Best Overall Program” designation in 2010. The program has graduated more than 3,500 students from Wisconsin, with 81 percent of those graduates also earning their high school equivalency diploma while in attendance at the Challenge Academy.