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sm181215-Z-XC605-1036The Challenge Academy Drill Team performs in front of guests attending the Challenge Academy graduation ceremony in Mauston, Wis. Dec. 15. Approximately 100 cadets graduated from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy in a ceremony at Mauston High School. The Challenge Academy provides a structured environment for at risk youth to develop confidence lifelong skills. Wisconsin Army National Guard photo by Cpl. Nathan Metz

MAUSTON, Wis. — Nearly 90 cadets graduated as Class 41 from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge academy in front of family and friends, distinguished guests and academy staff Saturday, December 15 at Mauston High School.

Class 41 cadets completed a 22-week program designed to re-shape the lives of at-risk-16-to-18-year olds through structured, military-like training with educators and counselors trained to build the cadet’s character and personal discipline.

sm181215-Z-XC605-1214.jpgBrig. Gen. Gary L. Ebben, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Air, presents Cadet Lilit Ortega with an award for distinguished honor graduate during the Challenge Academy graduation ceremony in Mauston, Wis. Dec. 15. Approximately 100 cadets graduated from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy in a ceremony at Mauston High School. The Challenge Academy provides a structured environment for at risk youth to develop confidence lifelong skills. Wisconsin Army National Guard photo by Cpl. Nathan Metz 

The keynote speaker, Command Sgt. Maj. Raphael Conde, senior enlisted advisor for the Wisconsin Army National Guard, told the cadets about the adversities he faced growing up and how his experiences in the military gave him the perspective he has today.

“You will face challenges throughout your life,” said Conde. “We all have challenges and problems that arise from time to time. How you choose to handle those challenges or issues is what will determine your future.”

sm181215-Z-XC605-1238.jpgCommand Sgt. Maj. Raphael Conde, senior enlisted advisor for the Wisconsin Army National Guard, addresses Challenge Academy Class 41 as the keynote speaker for the commencement ceremony in Mauston, Wis. Dec. 15. Approximately 100 cadets graduated from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy in a ceremony at Mauston High School. The Challenge Academy provides a structured environment for at risk youth to develop confidence lifelong skills. Wisconsin Army National Guard photo by Cpl. Nathan Metz

Command Sgt. Maj. Conde also told the cadets to learn from their mistakes and to look for mentors to help them get through the tough parts of their lives.

Cadet Lilit Ortega was recognized as the distinguished honor graduate of class 41 after exceeding expectations at the Challenge Academy. She said the academy was difficult and offered many challenges to her and her fellow cadets.

“I gained so much,” said Ortega. “I gained life skills and coping skills. The worst feeling was the homesickness. You suddenly stop watching TV, you stop drinking pop and you miss the comforts of home.”

Ortega said one of the most important skills she learned at the Challenge academy was how to be resilient and motivated when times get tough.

“I remember one breakfast where we had sweet rolls, and I liked that,” said Ortega. “The day was tough but it was a good day because that morning we got some sweets.”

sm181215-Z-XC605-1368.jpgLilit Ortega, Honor Graduate Cadet for Class 41, addresses her fellow cadets at the Challenge Academy commencement ceremony Dec. 15, Mauston, Wis. Approximately 100 cadets graduated from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy in a ceremony at Mauston High School. The Challenge Academy provides a structured environment for at risk youth to develop confidence lifelong skills. Wisconsin Army National Guard photo by Cpl. Nathan Metz

Cadet Tristan Funmaker said that he was excited to graduate from the challenge academy but also overwhelmed with emotions from completing the 22-week course.

“I look forward to seeing my siblings,” said Funmaker. “I know I’ll look better to them and I’ll be trying my best to be their leader and role model.”

Steven Horner, Cadet Specialist Team Leader, said that he enjoys the challenge of changing the lifelong habits of the cadets and showing them what they are capable of through hard work.

“It’s very cool to see how these kids change throughout the course, because you know what the kids are capable of at the very beginning but you still have to get them to that potential,” said Horner. “My favorite part of being an instructor is going to work and making a difference in young people’s lives.

Horner also said no matter what issues or obstacles young people may be facing when they arrive, there’s nothing that the academy can’t help them overcome.

sm181215-Z-XC605-1464.jpgTrenton Anderson, a Class 41 Challenge Academy Graduate, embraces his mom at the conclusion of the Challenge Academy graduation ceremony. Dec. 15, Mauston, Wis. Approximately 100 cadets graduated from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy in a ceremony at Mauston High School. The Challenge Academy provides a structured environment for at risk youth to develop confidence lifelong skills. Wisconsin Army National Guard photo by Cpl. Nathan Metz

When the graduation ceremony concluded, the graduates were released to their families to go home.

Jeremiah Anderson, a cadet’s father, said that it was difficult to be apart from his son for the duration of the program, and he’s proud of his son for completing it.

“He has much more self-confidence,” said Anderson. “I think now his eyes are open to what he is capable of and he sees the opportunity ahead.”

The National Guard Youth Challenge Program currently operates 40 programs in 28 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Nationwide, more than 145,000 teens have graduated the program. In Wisconsin, more than 3,600 students have graduated – 81 percent earning high school equivalency diplomas while attending the academy.