Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy begins Class 38 with 145 cadets

Cadets from the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy

Candidates from the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy arrive at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach Jan. 24 for day one of the 22-week program. (Photo courtesy of Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy)

VIRGINIA BEACH – Cadets in class 38 of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy finished the two-week long, physically taxing, pre-ChalleNGe phase of the 22-week course recently and are now in the academic phase of the program, where they will focus on schoolwork with a goal of earning their General Educational Development certificate by their June graduation.

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program. Located at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach, it focuses on preparing at-risk teens and high school dropouts for the GED test and future employment, military or higher education opportunities. Offered free to at-risk teens ages 16 to 18, Commonwealth ChalleNGe is a statewide co-educational program with two components- a 22-week quasi-military residential phase and a 12-month post-residential phase.

During the residential phase, cadet studies center on the eight components of the program- academics, life-coping skills, work skills, citizenship, leadership, health education, physical fitness and community service. Cadets also have the opportunity during this phase to take the GED test and establish a life plan which features continued education, employment or military service.

“About 70% of our cadets attain their GED while in the program,” said retired Army Col. Jimmy J. Chandler, director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe. “While it’s a goal for them, it’s not a requirement for graduation. They just need to show growth while they are here.”

A number of cadets come in with literacy issues and are only reading at the 1-6 school level when they arrive. But the biggest obstacle to graduation, according to Chandler, is behavioral issues.

“Most of them have very little discipline when they get here,” he said of the cadets. “But we have dedicated teachers that are trying to teach them and get them to pass the GED. And most of them do it.”

“To do a job like this, it can’t be an eight to five job,” Chandler said of the ChalleNGe staff. “You have to be dedicated. You have to want to do the job. You have to want to work with these kids. Our teachers are very dedicated. Our cadre is very dedicated. And our counselors are very dedicated. They all do great work. We truly have a great staff here.”

“This isn’t a job, it is an adventure,” said retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Richard Guzman, Deputy Commander of ChalleNGe. “I would not trade this job for anything. Simply put, I enjoy working with a fabulous staff, interacting with parents of cadets, and most of all, helping the cadets achieve their goals.”

Guzman said it’s also about “parents, guardians, friends, and family all telling our staff the great job they have done with their cadet.”

Candidates from 1st Platoon tackle the obstacle course Jan. 30, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy)

Candidates from 1st Platoon tackle the obstacle course Jan. 30, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy)

ChalleNGe currently has 35 cadre members leading four platoons- three male platoons and one female platoon. Chandler said the program is looking to grow to the point where they graduate more than 300 cadets each year. There are currently 145 cadets in Class 38. Class 37, which graduated in December 2012, was the second largest in their history with 153 graduates.

In order to reach their goal of 300 graduates a year, the academy is attempting to raise awareness of the program and get the word out. As part of that, Chandler has met with state and local education officials in an effort to “let them know who we are and what we offer.”

Many of the cadets come to ChalleNGe from Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia but Chandler said the program is hoping to increase enrollment from the Richmond area, the western portion of the state and Northern Virginia.

They have hired two new recruiters in the past year, one to work the Northern Virginia area and one to cover the area west and south of Richmond. The other two recruiters focus on the Hampton Roads region. But all four recruiters travel throughout the state, speaking to high school counselors about the program.

“Word of mouth is still the best advertisement we get,” Chandler explained. “When the kids leave here, they’ve changed. At graduation, parents are constantly coming up to us and thanking us for, as they say, ‘saving their children.’”

Guzman said it’s always great to see graduates return to ChalleNGe to speak with the new class cadets, write on Facebook that they have become a better person because of ChalleNGe, and comment on their experience and the positive impact ChalleNGe had on their lives.

The parents association plays a big role in the program, according to Chandler. Among other things, the parents association raises money for things like prom, paying for tuxedos and gowns for all the cadets.

“We try to give them some of the things they missed in high school, such as a prom, graduation and family day,” he explained.

Cadets also participate in invitational meets with other ChalleNGe programs. Last fall, North Carolina and Maryland cadets traveled to Virginia where the three programs competed in softball, basketball, soccer, archery, Trivial Pursuit and other events.

Members of class 38 of the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy transition from candidates to cadets during an induction ceremony Feb. 1  at Camp Pendleton.  (Photo courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy)

Members of class 38 of the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy transition from candidates to cadets during an induction ceremony Feb. 1 at Camp Pendleton. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy)

Events like these not only give them a taste of their high school years, but they also help to build camaraderie among the cadets. Chandler has seen first-hand how relationships among the cadets develop over time.

“The longer they’re together, they definitely build a bond,” he said. “It’s like the military. It starts at the platoon level and then it culminates at the school level. They eventually see themselves as all being on the same team.”

Guzman said, for him, the job is about the feeling of accomplishment when a cadet graduates, “then they shake our hands and move on to the next phase of their life.”

“You cannot help but feel proud of them and emotional for them (when they graduate),” Guzman said.

When they graduate from the 22-week residential phase at Camp Pendleton, cadets move to the post-residential phase for one year. 

“When they graduate, they either go back to high school, join the military, go to college, or they have to have a job in place,” Chandler explained.

ChalleNGe tracks them for a year using a two prong approach. While mentors report twice a month that they have talked to the kids, the ChalleNGe placement directors maintain contact with the kids directly to see how they are doing.

“Inevitably the ones who are doing well stay in contact with us while the ones who aren’t doing well, we have problems reaching,” Chandler said.

Mentors help guide each of the cadets as they follow through with the life plan they established during their residential phase. While ChalleNGe wants the kids to pick their own mentors, a background check sometimes disqualifies the person they have selected.

“If they have felony convictions, we obviously don’t consider them to be a good role model for the cadet,” Chandler said. “So we’ll look for volunteers. They may not know the cadet but they work on building that relationship.”

Chandler said they are always looking for potential mentors for the cadets and have in the past had Virginia Guard Soldiers volunteer to be mentors.In the end, after almost a year and a half, the goal is to have the kids back on the right track and prepared to succeed in the world.“They didn’t make it in high school but that doesn’t mean they can’t make it in life, “Chandler said. “We’re here to help them do that.”

For more information, visit the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Facebook page