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ChalleNGe Gets Warm Welcome

A few months ago, Cadet Kimberly Brown of Virginia said she would have been dead or in jail. A high school dropout at 18 years old, Brown already had spent a year in juvenile hall and she still had a young son to take care of.

Then she heard about the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, a community program that aims to train, mentor and educate at-risk youths. On Feb. 27, Brown spoke in front of about 800 people for the 2007 ChalleNGe Champion Awards about how her life has turned for the better.

“I am somebody and I want to be somebody in life,” Brown said.

Brown’s story is similar to those of other Youth ChalleNGe cadets, who mingled with Members of Congress, governors and other officials during a dinner event that recognized those who worked in support of the program.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) and Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, were among the guests. The gala was held to honor former President George H.W. Bush, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). Other awardees included the Merrill Lynch Co. and Adjutant General for the state of Louisiana Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau.

The gala was held in celebration of the new Youth ChalleNGe program in Washington, D.C., which launched in February. In the past year, new programs also were established in Indiana, Alabama and California.

Although the program has much bipartisan support from Congress, funds for the program have been scarce in past years. And it was only last year that D.C. was able to secure money for its own program.

“It’s a shame that we have to fight to keep this program every year,” Landrieu said. These are kids “who are about ready to give up and the program is the last train out.”

According to Congress’ authorization of the Youth ChalleNGe in 1995, states have to pay 40 percent of the program, while 60 percent comes from federal funds. Col. James Tinkham, chief of the Office of Athletics and Youth Development for the National Guard, said D.C. originally shared the Youth ChalleNGe program with Maryland and did not contribute its own funds, as required by the law. Because the District never budgeted for the program, it had to back out of its partnership with Maryland.

Tinkham said in 2006 Landrieu earmarked $500,000 in the federal budget to bring the program to D.C. He said approximately $300,000 more in District funds was needed.

“It did place a burden on the District,” Tinkham said. “But through the efforts of the senator and the District, it all came together and they finally got the money.”

The Youth ChalleNGe program in D.C. opened with 24 cadets at Camp Riverview in Scotland, Md. Program Director Gordon Sampson said the far-away location is necessary because the participants must be removed from their current environments.

“It has been proven that in order to change the individual, you must change the surroundings, you must change everyday routine and change the environment,” Sampson said. “Once they have been taken away from their environment, you can begin to work with them.”

Supporters argue that the program saves money in the long run. The cost of putting one person through Youth ChalleNGe is $14,000. A study released by the Alliance for Excellent Education found that current dropout rates over the next decade would result in more than 12 million students leaving school, which will result in a $3 trillion loss to the nation. The study said the U.S. could save more than $17 billion in health care expenditures and Medicaid for the uninsured by making sure students finish high school.

“I see the program as we either pay for it now or pay for it later,” Chambliss said.

Incorporating a quasi-military environment, Youth ChalleNGe allows 16 to 18 year olds who have dropped out of school to work toward their high school equivalency and learn job skills. Available in 27 states, the voluntary program attracts thousands of applicants a year. As of 2006, 70,000 youths have graduated from Youth ChalleNGe.

Cadet Charmaine Myers, 17, of Washington, D.C., said the program was a real challenge for her. She listed off the daily routine for cadets, from waking up at 5:45 a.m. to the physical training, school and study hall.

“Then you do it all over again the next day,” Myers said. “It’s difficult for me because I have never exercised a day in my life.”

Participants go through three phases in the 17-month program — pre-residential, residential and post-residential. The first phase is when cadets are assessed and go through drills. In the second phase, cadets take classes for their high school equivalency test and are encouraged to create a life plan for themselves. In post-residential, cadets are matched with mentors and actively pursue the goals that they have determined from their plan.

According to supporters, the strict environment in Youth ChalleNGe camps works to provide a structure that allows youths to achieve outside of the typical high school distractions. Rather than being associated with boot camps, Greg Sharp, executive director for the National Guard Youth Foundation, which raises money for scholarships and raises awareness about the program, calls Youth ChalleNGe an “education camp.”

“We’ve eliminated classroom distractions,” Sharp said. “There’s structure and discipline and consequences for not performing.”

According to the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Web site, about 40 percent of program graduates join the work force, another 41 percent continue their education, and about 15 percent join the military.

Sampson said the next step for the Youth ChalleNGe program in D.C. would be to let community members know about the program, which has the capacity to accept 100 cadets.

“I think some of the challenges include getting the parents of the community to understand that the program is good, that it provides options,” Sampson said. “One challenge is to get young people to understand [the program].”

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