Commonwealth ChalleNGe cadets take overall title at invitational, prepare for graduation

A cadet from the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy bats during a softball game against North Carolina’s Tar Heel ChalleNGe Academy Nov. 22, 2013 at Camp Pendleton. Cadets from N.C. and Maryland traveled to join Commonwealth ChalleNGe for an invitational event Nov. 21-24, 2013. The cadets competed in events such as drill and ceremony, softball, basketball, soccer chess and an academic bowl. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

A cadet from the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy bats during a softball game against North Carolina’s Tar Heel ChalleNGe Academy Nov. 22, 2013 at Camp Pendleton. Cadets from N.C. and Maryland traveled to join Commonwealth ChalleNGe for an invitational event Nov. 21-24, 2013. The cadets competed in events such as drill and ceremony, softball, basketball, soccer chess and an academic bowl. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

CAMP PENDLETON, Va. — The Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy hosted ChalleNGe cadets from Maryland and North Carolina for four days of academic and athletic competitions Nov. 21-24 at Camp Pendleton. The cadets participated in basketball, softball, soccer, chess, triathlon, a drill competition and an academic bowl.

Virginia finished first overall in the competition, giving the 132 cadets in Class 39 one more thing to be proud of as they near their graduation and completion of the residential phase of the program.

“It was a good culminating point to go out and see what they can do,” said retired Navy Capt. Mark Chicoine, director of ChalleNGe. “They had to earn their way on to those teams. It wasn’t a given that the best people could play. They had to earn it throughout the year.”

“They’ve built relationships during the class and we’ve been working on team building,” said retired Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Laury, commandant of the program. “This was a chance to cheer and pull for each other.”

The invitational was also an opportunity for the cadets who’ve been participating in intramural sports to compete with cadets from outside of Virginia, he said.

Cadets from the Tar Heel ChalleNGe Academy in North Carolina compete in the drill and ceremony competition during the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy invitational Nov. 22, 2013 at the Virginia Beach Readiness Center. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Cadets from the Tar Heel ChalleNGe Academy in North Carolina compete in the drill and ceremony competition during the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy invitational Nov. 22, 2013 at the Virginia Beach Readiness Center. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

“They really showed a lot of camaraderie,” said retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Richard Guzman, deputy director of ChalleNGe. “It was competitive but friendly. They saw the other states’ cadets are just like them.”

The ChalleNGe staff and the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Parent Association put a lot of time and effort into preparing for the invitational, according to Chicoine. The Parent Association financed food for the competitors and was involved in the organization of the event, while Commonwealth ChalleNGe staff members spent many hours coaching the teams and practicing for the competition.

Although the event featured cadets from Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, Chicoine would like to expand the invitational to include other programs in the region and feels that Camp Pendleton is the perfect place to host it. In fact, one year the invitational at Camp Pendleton featured cadets from 13 programs, according to Myron James, a post residential counselor, who has been with ChalleNGe since the program began in 1994.

The initial idea of the invitational when it began in 1998 was to let the cadets know the other programs have kids just like them, he said.

“Everyone gets involved and there is a lot of excitement,” James said. “It’s something for them to look forward to and an opportunity to do something they couldn’t do in high school.”

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which focuses on preparing teenagers that have dropped out or are on the verge of dropping out of high school with skills, discipline and academics to become a productive citizen. As an alternative education program they also have the opportunity to prepare for and take the General Educational Development test. Teenagers also prepare for future employment, military or higher education opportunities during the residential phase. Offered free to teenagers 16 to 18 in Virginia, Commonwealth ChalleNGe is a statewide alternative educational program with two components- a 22-week quasi-military residential phase and a 12-month post-residential phase.

During the 22-week 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 have the opportunity to take the GED test and establish a life plan (continued education, employment or military service) during this phase.

Cadets from the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy in Maryland and the Tar Heel ChalleNGe Academy in North Carolina compete against each other in soccer Nov. 22, 2013 at Camp Pendleton. Offered free to at-risk teens ages 16 to 18, Commonwealth ChalleNGe is a 22-week residential program that is structured in a military-style environment to promote academics, attention to detail, time management, and leadership, while promoting self esteem, confidence and pride. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Cadets from the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy in Maryland and the Tar Heel ChalleNGe Academy in North Carolina compete against each other in soccer Nov. 22, 2013 at Camp Pendleton. Offered free to at-risk teens ages 16 to 18, Commonwealth ChalleNGe is a 22-week residential program that is structured in a military-style environment to promote academics, attention to detail, time management, and leadership, while promoting self esteem, confidence and pride. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Graduates must either go back to high school, join the military, go to college, or have a job in place.

In the 12-month post-residential phase, a mentor guides each of the cadets as they follow through with the life plan established during the residential phase.

Next up for the cadets of Class 39 is their prom on Dec. 7 at Corporate Landing Middle School. Then graduation is scheduled for Dec. 14 at 9 a.m. at Ocean Lakes High School.

This is Chicoine’s first class since taking over as director in July 2013 and instilling pride in the graduates is one of his goals.

“ChalleNGe gives people an opportunity,” he said. “You have to earn your way in and you earn your way every day to stay here. You shouldn’t be embarrassed you had to come here. ChalleNGe is not an easy program. You should be proud you graduated from here and completed a very difficult program.”

There are currently 65 total staff members at ChalleNGe, including 40 cadre members and 10 teachers. The staff puts in so much hard work because they care, explained Laury.

“We all enjoy what we do,” he said. “And the reward comes after graduation. We love to see them persevere.”

Chicoine is looking to build better relationships with public schools in the state by working with superintendents, principals and school boards. Seventy percent of ChalleNGe cadets pass the GED but that 30% still needs a place to go when they are done with the program.

“Eighty-two hundred kids a year drop out of school in Virginia,” he said. “We’re only touching 300 of them. I want [the school leaders] to realize their students can transfer to us and then transfer back if they don’t pass the GED.”

Retired Navy Capt. Mark Chicoine (center), the director of the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy, introduces Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Long Jr (left), the Adjutant General of Virginia, to members of the ChalleNGe staff Nov. 25, 2013 at Camp Pendleton. Chicoine provided Long with a tour of the academy’s facilities, including a new resource center with medical facilies, classrooms and offices for counselors. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Retired Navy Capt. Mark Chicoine (center), the director of the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy, introduces Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Long Jr (left), the Adjutant General of Virginia, to members of the ChalleNGe staff Nov. 25, 2013 at Camp Pendleton. Chicoine provided Long with a tour of the academy’s facilities, including a new resource center with medical facilies, classrooms and offices for counselors. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

The Commonwealth ChalleNGe Parent Association plays a large role in the program. In addition to providing food for the invitational, they help with the funding for the prom, and they provide scholarships to graduates. The association holds fundraisers throughout the year and can also provide financial assistance to cadets who may need it.

“It says something about their commitment that they do all the things they do,” Guzman said.

ChalleNGe is also creating parent workshops to help them understand and deal with the cadets when they graduate and return home following the residential phase of the program

“We want to get the parents up to speed on what it will be like when their cadet comes home,” Chicoine explained. “We want to have a series of workshops throughout the curriculum because they need that support when they get home.”

ChalleNGe recently unveiled a new resource building. It contains a medical facility and career counselors on the bottom floor while upstairs there is a social studies classroom, a special education classroom and offices for counselors.

In the fall ChalleNGe will be altering its class schedule. Instead of going from September to December and January to June as it currently does, classes will run from October to March and April to August.

A number of youths drop out during the first month of school. Pushing back the start date of the program will allow ChalleNGe to get those kids who’ve just dropped out, rather than having to wait a few months for the next class.

“That will really help us catch the ones who drop out in September,” Guzman explained.

“There is an absolute need for ChalleNGe,” Chicoine said. “And until that 8,200 dropout rate is down to zero, there will be a need for this program.”

At ChalleNGe, a teen can get away from “what’s keeping them back,” said James.

“They can look at themselves without the influence of friends, parents or family members,” he said. “They have an opportunity to evaluate themselves and see who they really are.”

As James pointed out, the 132 cadets still left in Class 39 had many opportunities to leave but they all made the choice to come back and finish what they started.

“It’s all about getting them to think they accomplished something and it’s made them proud,” James said. “They’ve learned a lot, not just academically but things like respect, teamwork and leadership.”

“The satisfaction of seeing a cadet go from beginning to end and see the transformation they go through never gets old,” Guzman said.

Cadets from the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy compete in a drill and ceremony competition Nov. 22, 2013 at the Virginia Beach Readiness Center. Virginia edged out North Carolina and Maryland for the title at the multi-event, four-day invitational, held Nov. 21-24, 2013. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Cadets from the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy compete in a drill and ceremony competition Nov. 22, 2013 at the Virginia Beach Readiness Center. Virginia edged out North Carolina and Maryland for the title at the multi-event, four-day invitational, held Nov. 21-24, 2013. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)