Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Challenge Academy cadets celebrate achievement

Date: December 22, 2009
By Sgt. Andy Poquette
Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs

One hundred and one cadets cast off the mantle of "truant" or "trouble-maker" and embraced the role of responsible young adult during the graduation ceremony for Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy Class 23 Saturday (Dec. 19).

The goal of the Academy is to transform at-risk youths who don't care about school, may be in trouble with the law, or may have been abusing drugs or alcohol, to a responsible young adult who has a high school degree and is a contributing member of their family and community.

The National Guard's Youth ChalleNGe Program began in 1991, when the House Joint Armed Service Committee tasked the National Guard to develop a plan to help at-risk teens and "add value to America." By providing values, skills, education, and discipline to young people using the structure and esprit de corps of the military model, the Youth ChalleNGe Program began a three-year pilot program in 1993. Fifteen states participated in the pilot program, which became a permanent National Guard program in 1996. In 1998, Wisconsin became one of 26 states to offer the Challenge Program and has graduated more than 1,900 cadets since.

During the 22-week program cadets learn important leadership and life coping skills while studying for their general education development test. Each cadet undergoes important changes to mold them into responsible citizens who can contribute to the success of their local communities. Much of the change comes as a result of mentorship from their team leaders.

Cadets are broken into 14-person teams and team leaders are responsible for coaching their cadets and guiding them through the program.

"The best thing about being a team leader is being given the raw material of a cadet when they arrive, and shaping them into a young adult," said Senior Team Leader Shane Mikkelson. "You can always see the disappointment in a cadet's or parent's eyes when they arrive, and to see the change in them, the pride at graduation, is a great feeling.

"Cadets take away a personal sense of pride and accomplishment," Mikkelson continued. "For many of them, this is the first time they have finished anything."

Cadet William Dorn, of Poynette, agreed.

"It was really difficult being away from home for so long," Dorn said, "but I took away a sense of discipline I didn't have before."

Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy cadets stand at attention during their graduation ceremony Saturday (Dec. 19) at Mauston High School. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Sgt. Andy Poquette

Each cadet received a Challenge Academy diploma and coin to remember their accomplishment.

"Carry that coin with you wherever you go," said Col. (retired) M.G. MacLaren, Challenge Academy program director. "Whenever you have doubts, are undecided or afraid, take out the coin and hold it. Think back to what you accomplished here by not giving up, and have the courage to make the hard right choice."

State Senator Dan Kapanke was the key note speaker of the ceremony and reminded cadets that life will not always be easy, but with hard work and determination, they would be able to overcome any trial.

Wisconsin National Guard senior leaders on hand for the graduation ceremony at Mauston High School included Brig. Gen. Donald Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin; Col. Joseph Brandemuehl, commander of the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing; Command Sgt. Major George Stopper, state command sergeant major for the Wisconsin Army National Guard; and Command Chief Master Sgt. James Chisolm, command chief master sergeant for the Wisconsin Air National Guard.

The Challenge Academy will soon be welcoming cadets to Class 24, which begins. Jan. 15, 2010. Applications are available for Class 24 and future classes by contacting the Challenge Academy at (608)-269-4605.

MacLaren offered some advice for incoming cadets.

"Don't give up on yourself," he said. "There are hard times ahead - don't quit. Quitting is the only way you will lose."

At the conclusion of the 45 minute ceremony cadets were released to their families. They will now return to their homes, and in some cases difficult, lives they left 22 weeks ago. Their "challenge" however isn't over. Cadets will continue to meet with mentors, and look to the friends they made during the program for support, as they continue the transition that has changed their lives.

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