Virginia rappel masters challenge at-risk youth

Instructors from 183d Regiment, Regional Training Institute, assist candidates from the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Program with rappelling July 23 at Fort Story, Va. Commonwealth ChalleNGe is a 22-week quasi-military residential program designed to challenge, educate and motivate at-risk youth from around Va. (Photo by Sgt. Luther L. Boothe Jr., Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

FORT STORY, Va. — Rappel masters of the 1st Battalion, 183rd Regiment, Regional Training Institute, from Fort Pickett, Va., instructed approximately 210 candidates from the Commonwealth ChalleNGe program down a 40-foot rappel tower June 23 at Fort Story, Va.

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, a five and a half month program which focuses on preparing at-risk teens and high school dropouts for the General Educational Development test and future employment, military or higher education opportunities.

The rappelling participants were in the “Pre-ChalleNGe” phase, a two-week indoctrination period to determine if prospective cadets are prepared for the rigorous program.

“We like coming out here, showing them how to repel and overcome their fear because we were all there at one time too,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Homer, noncommissioned officer in charge of the rappel master program at the 1-183rd RTI.

“Everyone, Soldier or civilian, is apprehensive when they first get up on the tower,” said Homer. “But they learn to overcome their fears, and trust in their gear.”

Alex Humphrey of Alexandria, Va., said he is looking forward to becoming one of the anticipated 190 cadets after the five-mile march June 26.

“I started doing drugs, got in with the wrong crowd, got wild with it, and started not caring,” said Humphrey.

Run-ins with the law landed Humphrey in jail twice and he was on probation when his mother found the Commonwealth ChalleNGe and convinced her son to apply.

On June 27, cadets enter the “ChalleNGe” phase, a 20-week residential period of academics, physical fitness, counseling (both individual and group), life skills, and team building. Cadets live on post in military barracks, eat in the post dining facility, and attend school on the State Military Reservation at Virginia Beach.

Instructors, mostly Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps reservists and retirees, teach cadets good hygiene, manners, and academics in classes capped at 15 students. These small classes allow for a hands-on approach with personal attention, said retired Marine Sgt. Rogers Rascoe Jr., a security officer with the program.

“We teach them how to walk all over again,” said Rascoe, “to be mature young men and women.”

Considering the troubled backgrounds these 16-19 year olds come from, the attrition rate during holiday breaks is very small. On return from break, parents frequently thank the instructors recounting stories of hearing their son or daughter get up at 5:30 a.m. and start cleaning the house.

The program estimates that 40% of the program’s graduates go onto college and 10% enlist in the military, but all must have a job or volunteer position before they leave the program.

“They come in with their shoulders down, but by the time they finish the program they’re sure of themselves and standing straight, that’s my joy,” said Rascoe.

“I want to be here,” said Humphrey. “To get my life back on track, get discipline, get out of here, go to college and do something with my life.”

With this dedication, Humphrey will surely be one of the 3,000 cadets who have completed this rigorous program and have gone on to lead successful lives.

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