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Youth Challenge cadets in class.
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Girls marching to lunch.
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Girls finishing group class work.
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A cadet during individual reading time.
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Dana Foster, instructor, speaks with a cadet.
The federal and state mission of the Louisiana National Guard is to provide trained and ready soldiers, airmen and units for deployment in support of national military objectives designated by the president of the United States, Governor or Adjutant General. Their community mission is to focus initiatives to enhance community relationships and provide mutually beneficial support.
In the pursuit of serving their country in their own community, the Louisiana National Guard provides a program for at-risk youth that gives these young people a second chance at becoming a productive member of society.
The Youth ChalleNGe Program, on a national level, has a mission of its own. The program was created to intervene in and reclaim the lives of 16-18 year old high school dropouts, producing program graduates with the values, life skills, education, and self-discipline necessary to succeed as productive citizens.
According to Megan Ready, LANG Public Relations Director, “The YCP is an alternative educational program which offers adolescents an opportunity to change their future. Students looking for a way to succeed outside of a traditional school setting learn self-discipline, leadership, and responsibility while working to obtain a high school equivalency diploma.”
In the early 1990s, Congress recognized the inherent community strengths of the Guard, as well as its ability to train, lead, and mentor young people in a caring yet disciplined environment. In 1993, Congress approved the Defense Authorization Bill, which introduced the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program (YCP) as a pilot program.
By 1995, fifteen states were participating in the YCP with another 23 states on a waiting list for a program. In 1998, Congress permanently authorized the program at 75 percent federal funding and 25 percent state funding. At this time there are 34 programs in 29 states and Puerto Rico.
The goal of the program is to determine whether life skills, education levels, and employment potential of youth who drop out of secondary school could be significantly improved through quasi-military assisted training. Administered and managed by the National Guard Bureau, and under the auspices of the Assistant Secretary of Defense Reserve Affairs, agreements to conduct the program were entered into between the National Guard Bureau and the state Governors and Adjutant Generals.
The application process involves an interview at one of several locations throughout the state where the student will be assigned and when they will start the program. They have to be at least 16 to enter the program. They cannot have any felony convictions, must be a U.S. citizen and cannot be court ordered or sentenced. Ready added that “the interview application process takes several to complete.”
YCP is a 17 month program which consists of two phases. During the 5 month Residential Phase (22 weeks), cadets live on site at one of the three locations: Camp Minden in Webster Parish, Camp Beauregard in Central Louisiana, or Gillis Long Center near Baton Rouge. During this phase, students attend school, receive individual counseling and are supervised 24 hours per day.
After graduation, cadets return home and enter the 12 month Post Residential Phase. During this phase, which is designed to help students continue in a positive direction, graduates are assisted by case managers and community mentors to continue their education, enroll in college, begin job training, find employment, or enlist in the military. The Louisiana National Guard Youth Challenge Program is administered at no cost to participants.
The core components of the program consists of life coping skills, academic excellence, job skills, responsible citizenship, leadership, health and hygiene, physical fitness and service to the community.
1st Lt. Jason Montgomery is the Camp Minden Director. “For me, the most important part of the program is teaching and showing the cadets what it means to be a responsible citizen. I think that this is the most important of the eight core components.”
A typical weekday schedule consists of waking up, cleaning barracks, personal hygiene and breakfast. The day continues with academics, classes, counseling, mealtimes and physical fitness routines. The day ends with letter writing, personal hygiene, guest speakers, evening meal and then lights out.
A typical weekend involves a slightly different routine than the weekday schedule. There is a later wake-up call and breakfast that starts each day; then onto possible field trips, drills and ceremonies, sporting events, letter writing, movies and meals.
The academic aspect of the program is to increase a cadet’s reading and math abilities and prepare them for the General Education Development (GED) test. Classes are given in five areas that are tested on the GED. “They consistently increase three to four grade levels during the five month residential phase,” said Ready.
Lt. Montgomery added, “At some point in life we have all been knocked down. When you get the cadets to realize this, it is an amazing sight to see. The moment they finally connect the dots and realize what they can achieve, and pursue their goals full steam ahead is one of the most important things that I think this program teaches them.”
Life coping skills is an area taken very seriously. Most youth involved in the program are there because they lack some form of coping abilities. YCP increases self-esteem and self-discipline through a combination of classroom activities and structured living environments. The individual strategies and coping mechanisms for managing personal life are developed through group discussions in the classroom environment. Included in this area are substance abuse, anger management, stress management, team building skills, parenting and budgeting.
Camp Minden graduates 200 cadets per cycle which is about 400 a year. The current session has about 25 percent female cadets enrolled. Dana Foster, instructor at Camp Minden, has been with the program for 11 years. His main responsibilities include teaching core academics and Life Skills. “The most rewarding aspect of YCP is finding exactly how to reach a student. Our cadets come from different backgrounds. Once we identify the issues, we help the cadet to realize their potential. My experience is that every cadet wants to improve.”
Another way for the community and family members of a cadet to get involved in this process is by becoming a mentor. Mentors are needed to provide support and guidance during this period of the cadet’s life. Each mentor is given a background check and must be 25. They will have the appropriate training for this position and they will visit the cadet on scheduled days. A cadet can have a mentor during the residential phase and the post residential phase.
For more information on this program, visit their website at http://ngycp.org/site/state/la/node/15065, on FB at Louisiana Youth Challenge, or call1.800.226.7543.
By Caroline King