Headlines in the Midlands

Youth ChalleNGe is transforming troubled teens

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By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
February 22, 2013

The S.C. Youth Challenge Academy is about second chances. It is a second chance at a young life that is either on the verge of – or is already – spiraling out-of-control. But more specifically, it is a second chance at the measurable tangibles – education, physical fitness, self-discipline, self-esteem, and a grasping of the eternal values of selfless-service.
 
"The S.C. Youth Challenge Academy gives youth a second chance at a critical high school education and an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves," says Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston, Jr., adjutant general of S.C. and commanding general of the S.C. Military Dept. (including the S.C. National Guard which oversees the Youth ChalleNGe program). "Youth Challenge cadets and graduates have the tools and understanding to make a meaningful contribution to their community, state and nation."

WHAT EXACTLY IS YOUTH CHALLENGE?

Youth ChalleNGe – the upper case "NG" reflecting the National Guard's oversight – is a program wherein at-risk teenagers ages 16–18 enter a five-month "quasi-military" academy, and upon successful completion of the program return home with the values, skills, education, self-esteem and self-discipline to succeed as an adult. Time spent at the Youth ChalleNGe Academy – located at Fort Jackson's Camp McCrady near Eastover – is followed by a 12-month mentoring phase to ensure the new graduates don't slip back into the self-destructive environment that led them to the academy in the first place.

"What sets Youth ChalleNGe apart – makes the program unique – is the one-year mentoring phase after the students graduate," says S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley. "Students often find themselves returning to a less-than-stellar environment after graduation, but – unlike other similar youth 'boot camps' around the country – they do-so with a trained and qualified mentor."

Gov. Haley – whose husband Capt. Michael Haley, an officer in the S.C. Army National Guard, served on the Youth ChalleNGe foundation advisory board prior to deploying to Afghanistan – adds, "Michael and I are big supporters of the Youth ChalleNGe program. It is both amazing and inspiring to see what Youth ChalleNGe is doing to transform the lives of these young people."

Amazing, inspiring, and transformative to be sure. One has but to attend a Youth ChalleNGe graduation to see and experience what has become a stark regeneration from troubled teenager to a confident young leader ready to tackle – and help their peers take on – whatever challenges life deals them.

PRE-CHALLENGE TO GRADUATION

The residential phase begins with a rigorous make-or-break two-week "pre-challenge" sub-phase wherein applicants (candidates) are immersed into the world of working and playing well with others – yes, teamwork. They do so – and begin to adjust to the new lifestyle – with a 24/7 focus on the finer points of close order drill (yes, marching in formation), instruction in the code of conduct (expectations and values training), learning to be both a leader and a follower, and conditioning their bodies with a structured physical fitness and nutrition program.

"We lose about 15 to 20 young people out of around 130 during pre-challenge," says COL Jackie Fogle, director of the S.C. Youth ChalleNGe Academy. "There are various reasons why we lose those applicants, but the two primary reasons are homesickness and an inability to adjust to the quasi-military environment."

That said, 90 percent of those who complete the two-week sub-phase ultimately finish the entire 22-week program and begin life anew.

The S.C. Youth ChalleNGe Academy has produced more than 3,500 graduates from across the state since 1998.  More than half of those graduates obtained GEDs (General Educational Development –  high school equivalency credentials), which – according to an official statement – is significant because 100 percent of all graduates were either high school dropouts or had been expelled from high school. And in recent years, several students have earned high school diplomas and begun college-level classes while still in the program.

That's not all. During the residential phase, Youth ChalleNGe students average a two-grade increase in general reading comprehension and a slightly higher increase in math skills.  The program offers training in computer repair and maintenance, driver education, and public speaking. There is a literary circle and a science club. Last year, a robotics team was established, led by the S.C. National Guard's Information Technologies Support Team. Then there are the 40 hours of community service performed by each student (one of many ways the program instills a sense of selflessness in its students).

BEYOND THE CHALLENGE

Lastly is the aforementioned "mentoring phase" which – for each student – takes the program beyond graduation for at least one year. But the mentoring phase actually begins halfway through the residential phase. "We like to pair the student up with a fully vetted, fully qualified mentor at least by the 12th week," says Fogle.

What does Youth ChalleNGe generate long term? Hard to tell, considering it is only 15 years old. But what program followers have seen are encouraging numbers of college graduates (including undergraduate and graduate degrees), military leaders (at least one of whom has served with distinction in combat), and business leaders. All of them still young to be sure, but – in many ways – proving to be standard-bearers for all that is good and selfless and, yes, extraordinarily successful.

– Visit W. Thomas Smith Jr. at uswriter.com.