contributed……After almost five months, 99 cadets graduated from the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy at Fort McCoy, Wis., where they built a solid foundation for their futures.  The 99 cadets, whittled down from the 156 that began the program on July 19, walked proudly across the stage at Mauston High School on Dec. 15, knowing that they had refocused their lives and started on a path toward success as successful members of society.  The Challenge Academy seeks to re-shape the lives of at-risk youths between the age of 16 and 18 using a structured, military-style environment and a quality staff of teachers and counselors helping to build their cadets’ academics, discipline, character, and ultimately, their self-respect.  It paid off.

“It taught me so many things, and the one thing I needed to work on was my discipline, and that’s the main thing it taught you,” said Alannah Lancaster, 17, of Mauston, Wis., shortly after graduating. “I just thought it was a great program and a great opportunity. I don’t know where I’d be without it.”  Lancaster plans to join Americorps next fall.  Dustin Bernhardt, a 17-year-old cadet from West Bend, Wis., credited the Challenge Academy with teaching him how to be both a good leader and a good follower. He plans to get a part-time job before enrolling in technical college to become an engineer.  “Before the program, I really didn’t have anything straightened out,” explained Atticus Peterson, a 17-year-old Madison, Wis., native. “I really didn’t know where I was going in life. High school really wasn’t a priority for me. I didn’t go. My grades were rock bottom.”  Since joining the Challenge Academy, Peterson turned around his grades, joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard and set his sights on getting into UW-Madison, where he plans to pursue a degree in law enforcement and ultimately become a police officer.  The cadets spent almost 24,000 hours in the classroom collectively, and another 17,000 hours in study hall. Twelve read a book cover to cover for the first time. The corps of cadets did approximated 544,000 push-ups and lost a combined 712 pounds, while others gained 684, presumably in muscle.  “Thanks to the academy, we know what works to control our anger. We know what discipline looks like, and we know the benefits of working as a team,” said Alexander Dake, the class’s distinguished honor graduate. “We’ve set goals, recognized the importance of our education and realized that our families and mentors are our most important support system.”

Those same family members and mentors were beaming with pride as they watched their cadets receive their diplomas and put their lives back on the right track. Glen Henderson, of Mazomanie, Wis., watched as his granddaughter began losing focus in her life.  Said Henderson, “The thing she really lacked was self-esteem. She grew up with split parents and spent a lot of time with us, her grandparents. She just kind of started to lose her way. She never really got in any big trouble with the police or anything, but it almost got to the point of not caring. School just dropped way out of sight.”   After learning about the Challenge Academy from her high school principal, his granddaughter, Kelsie, enrolled. The difference has been incredible.  “She has self-esteem,” Henderson said of his granddaughter. “She’s proud of the things she does now. She laughs more. She always was so cynical before.   “This program has actually empowered her,” he continued. “It really has, and we’ve been telling her all through this, ‘You’re doing this for you. You don’t have to do it for anybody else. Do it for you.’ And that’s what she’s done. And all of the other guys and young ladies that have completed this have done it for themselves.”  Henderson credited his granddaughter’s hometown mentor, a key facet of the Challenge Academy program.

“It plugs them into people who are successful,” said Craig Smith, a mentor to a cadet from Weyauwega, Wis. “He looks around him every day, and he’s surrounded by people who get work done, do things, go home to their families, and are happy every night.  “He’s gotten a chance to get a little insight into our life and know that none of what earned in our life came because we were lucky or anything else,” Smith continued. “It came because we did the things we were supposed to do. I think he’s learning that.”  Smith and others expressed hope that the Challenge Academy and programs like it would only become more common in the years to come.

Addressing the corps of cadets at the Dec. 15 graduation ceremony, Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin, offered words of encouragement and urged each cadet to take ownership of their lives going forward.  “As I look in your eyes, 99 men and women in front of me, I see a confidence that comes with accomplishment,” he told them. “But you know, we didn’t quite see that look of confidence just a few short months ago when you started this program.  “You have built yourself a foundation,” Dunbar continued. “That foundation will support anything you want to do with your life, but it’s just a foundation. You have to leave here and build something on top of that foundation.”

Lt. Col. Mike Murphy, who took over as director of the Challenge Academy in November, told the cadets that the choices they face are theirs to make.  “During my four short weeks with you so far, I’ve told many of you, ‘Life is all about choices,’” Murphy said. “The path you choose is your choice. Stay focused on your future, always choosing the harder right over the easier wrong.”  With that, class 29 of the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy was dismissed for the last time. They joined more than 100,000 teens in 29 other states and territories who have successfully completed the National Guard’s youth programs since they began in 1993. Some 2,555 of them came through Wisconsin’s program. The 99 graduates from class 29 hailed from 40 different counties across Wisconsin. With their 22-week residential phase behind them, they will now continue to receive guidance and encouragement from their hometown mentors as they navigate life’s often difficult path.