Commonwealth Challenge graduates get back on track

Retired Navy Capt. Mark Chicoine, Director of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy, in congratulating the 101 graduates of Class 46 of Commonwealth ChalleNGe March 4, 2017, at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (U.S. National Guard photo by Sgt. JoAnna Greene)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy graduated 101 cadets during a commencement ceremony for Class 46 March 4, 2017, at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach. Virginia State Senator Bryce Reeves, who represents the 17th District, was the guest speaker. Brig. Gen. Paul F. Griffin, Director of the Joint Staff for the Virginia National Guard, was on hand to congratulate the graduates and the Clifton Forge-based 29th Division Band performed ceremonial music for the event.

“Congratulations, you have made it to the starting line,” Reeves said to Class 46 during his address. “You have been given an opportunity to change your direction and do a course correction. You have truly reclaimed your life and that is something to be proud of.”

The young men and women of Class 46 had dropped out of high school, or were on the verge of dropping out of high school when they entered Commonwealth ChalleNGe, the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program. During the 18-month program the graduates developed the skills, discipline and academics to get them back on track. The residential, military-style environment promotes academics, attention to detail, time management and leadership. The program aims to provide the cadets with increased self-esteem, confidence and pride.

There are two academic tracks available to cadets in ChalleNGe. Cadets can complete their individual credit recovery curriculum and return to their respective high schools to earn their diplomas or prepare for the General Education Development test to earn a high school equivalency diploma. Both tracks allow graduates to return to the path of productive citizenship.

“Today is a turning point for our future,” said Clifford Hamilton II, valedictorian of the credit recovery program. “Everyone has to start somewhere, and this is our somewhere. Now we have a solid foundation to be the best we can be.”

The 17-year-old from Gloucester County, Virginia, admitted he had been rebellious and, “doing things I shouldn’t.” When his mother heard about ChalleNGe she thought it was an opportunity to get him out of that environment and jumpstart his motivation. Hamilton said he will be returning to his high school to earn a diploma and plans to join the military after he graduates.

“You’ve all spent your time here learning skills and lessons to shape your adulthood and to be able to make something greater out of your lives,” said Reeves to the graduates. “What you’ve learned at the Commonwealth Challenge will be the foundation for all that you achieve in the future, and I know your futures are bright.”

Commonwealth ChalleNGe opened its doors in July of 1994. Since then, 46 classes totaling more than 4,000 cadets, have completed this rigorous program.

After the residential phase, cadets then move into a one year post-residential phase. This one year mentorship period is completed in the cadet’s community with the guidance and assistance of a screened, trained and matched mentor.

The relationship between the cadet and mentor begins during the residential phase. The progress of each cadet during the post residential phase is documented in monthly mentor reports submitted by the mentors to the career counselors at the beginning of each month.

A mentor should be a resident of Virginia, at least 21 years old and must be of the same gender as the applicant. They cannot be an immediate relative, either by marriage or bloodline, or someone living in the same household or providing support to the applicant. A mentor can be an uncle, aunt, grand-parent or cousin. They must live within a reasonable distance to where the applicant will live during the post-residential phase.

The Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy operates two residential classes per year. The next class begins March 28, 2017. Applications are currently being accepted for Class 48 which begins Oct. 2, 2017.

For more information about ChalleNGe, visit http://www.vachallenge.org/

To view more photos from this event, click here.

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