Commonwealth ChalleNGe graduates 128 at December ceremony

Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis A. Green, the Virginia National Guard Senior Enlisted Leader (left), Brig. Gen. Wayne A. Wright, the Deputy Adjutant General of Virginia (center), and Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Long Jr., the Adjutant General of Virginia (right), congratulate a Ji Arie Wright, one of 128 graduates of Class 39 of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy Dec. 14, 2013, at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis A. Green, the Virginia National Guard Senior Enlisted Leader (left), Brig. Gen. Wayne A. Wright, the Deputy Adjutant General of Virginia (center), and Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Long Jr., the Adjutant General of Virginia (right), congratulate a Ji Arie Wright, one of 128 graduates of Class 39 of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy Dec. 14, 2013, at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy graduated 128 cadets during a commencement ceremony for Class 39 Dec. 14, 2013, at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach. Brig. Gen. Wayne A. Wright, the Deputy Adjutant General of Virginia, was the guest speaker for the event.

Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Long Jr., the Adjutant General of Virginia, and Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis A. Green, the Virginia National Guard Senior Enlisted Leader, were also on hand to represent the Virginia National Guard and recognize the graduates after the completion of the 22-week, quasi-military, residential phase of the program.

Retired Navy Capt. Mark Chicoine, the director of ChalleNGe, recognizes Sebastian Middlehof as the distinguished graduate of Class 39. Middlehof was a member of the color guard and the drill, soccer and chess teams, performed community service at the Commonwealth Attorney’s office, and is currently applying to several colleges. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Retired Navy Capt. Mark Chicoine, the director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe, recognizes Sebastian Middlehof as the distinguished graduate of Class 39. Middlehof was a member of the color guard and the drill, soccer and chess teams, performed community service at the Commonwealth Attorney’s office, and is currently applying to several colleges. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

The Virginia National Guard’s 29th Division Band provided music for the ceremony.

“Class 39 started out with 191 cadets,” Wright said. “Today we celebrate the 128 who made it through.”

He asked the cadets to look to their left and to their right and thank their fellow cadets for helping them get through the program.

“This program teaches them teamwork and allows them to do something bigger than themselves,” Wright told the audience. “They learn to have a positive influence on their community and their society.”

The ChalleNGe program also helps young men and women realize there is something more positive out there for them, Wright explained.

“It makes them realize that glass isn’t half empty, but rather the glass is half full,” he said.

“Coming here was the best decision I ever made,” said Cadet Kiontae King, who gave the graduation address. “We’re no longer the same people who walked in here five and a half months ago. Everyone has come a long way from where we started. But we persevered and we made it through. The ChalleNGe staff taught us everything we need to know about ourselves.”

This was the first graduating class for retired Navy Capt. Mark Chicoine, who took over as director of the program in July 2013.

“We’re lucky to have him and we know he and his staff is going to take their program on to greater things,” Wright said.

Chicoine recognized Cadet Sebastian Middlehof as the distinguished graduate of Class 39.

Middlehof aced the GED test and achieved exceptional SAT scores, according to Chicoine. He was also a member of the color guard and the drill, soccer and chess teams, performed community service at the Commonwealth Attorney’s office, and is currently applying to several colleges.

The Virginia National Guard’s 29th Division Band, led by CW2 Donald Carlson, provides music for the graduation ceremony. The band, which is based in Clifton Forge, travels the state, supporting the command with musical performances. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

The Virginia National Guard’s 29th Division Band, led by CW2 Donald Carlson, provides music for the graduation ceremony. The band, which is based in Clifton Forge, travels the state, supporting the command with musical performances. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

“He achieved this not only because of his personal effort,” Chicoine said, “but also because of the great support from his family.”

Each ChalleNGe cadet is required to perform a minimum of 40 hours of community service and the cadets were recognized by various organizations for their community service time. Class 39 performed more than 23,000 hours of community service with an estimated market value of $176,000 according to retired Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Laury, commandant of Commonwealth ChalleNGe. Among the places they volunteered were the Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney’s office, NAS Oceana commissary, Lynnhaven Elementary School, Virginia Beach SPCA, Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation and the Virginia Beach convention Center.

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.

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 stage Class 39 has now reached, a mentor guides each of the cadets as they follow through with the life plan established during the residential phase.

“Whether you join the military or not, I think you’ll all agree that the lessons you learned here are lessons that will stay with you the rest of your life,” Wright told the graduates.

But the support from their families that helped the cadets get through the program is something that needs to continue now that they will be returning home.

“Make sure they don’t slip,” Wright told the friends and family members in attendance. “Don’t let them go back to the way things were before.”
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Graduates of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy celebrate following their graduation ceremony Dec. 14, 2013 in Virginia Beach, Va. The members of Class 39 now enter in to the 12-month post-residential phase and a mentor guides each of the cadets as they follow through with the life plan established during the residential phase. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Graduates of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy celebrate following their graduation ceremony Dec. 14, 2013 in Virginia Beach, Va. The members of Class 39 now enter in to the 12-month post-residential phase and a mentor guides each of the cadets as they follow through with the life plan established during the residential phase. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)