Commonwealth ChalleNGe graduates 114 cadets from Class 52

Retired Brig. Gen. Walt Mercer (center), chief operations officer for the Virginia Department of Military Affairs, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Andrew L. Eaves (left), an active duty Army aviator assigned to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and a Mississippi National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Academy graduate, congratulate the graduates of Class 52 of the Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy Feb. 29, 2020, at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach. Commonwealth ChalleNGe, the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, is a 17-and-a-half-month program designed to promote academics, attention to detail, time management, and leadership, while promoting self-esteem, confidence and pride. (U.S. National Guard photo by A.J. Coyne)

Virginia Beach, Virginia — The Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy graduated 114 cadets from Class 52 Feb. 29, 2020, at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach. Retired Brig. Gen. Walt Mercer, chief operations officer for the Virginia Department of Military Affairs, joined Mark Chicoine, director of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy, in congratulating the cadets on finishing the five-and-a-half-month residential portion of the program.

“Class 52 is a class of firsts,” Chicoine said. “Today’s ceremony will feature our newly-certified nurse assistants. We’ll also highlight cadets that joined the military, the iron workers and those earning college credits.”

The Virginia Army National Guard’s Troutville-based 29th Infantry Division Band performed ceremonial music for the event.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Andrew L. Eaves, an active duty Army aviator assigned to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and a Mississippi National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Academy graduate, was the guest speaker.

“Congratulations Class 52. You deserve what you’ve done,” Eaves said. “To the families, to the moms, to the dads- thank you for the support you’ve given them and for continuing to be their support.”

The Virginia Army National Guard’s Troutville-based 29th Infantry Division Band performs ceremonial music for the graduation of Class 52 of the Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy Feb. 29, 2020, at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach. (U.S. National Guard photo by A.J. Coyne)

Commonwealth ChalleNGe, the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, is a 17-and-a-half-month program designed to promote academics, attention to detail, time management, and leadership, while promoting self-esteem, confidence and pride.

ChalleNGe aims to intervene in the lives of 16-18 year-olds by providing values, skills, education and self-discipline needed to produce responsible, productive citizens, and to do so in a highly-structured learning environment.

It includes a five-and-a-half-month residential 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.

Cadet Erin Cook received the Distinguished Graduate award and two cadets were honored as valedictorians. Cadet Shai Shawn Griffin was the valedictorian for the credit recovery track and Cadet Jonah Selenskikh was the valedictorian for the GED track.

“Today we focus on the end result, the success, the accomplishments, the tangible things like a GED or earned credits,” Chicoine said. “But none of those tangibles would be possible without the effort of our operations staff. Awesome job.”

According to Chicoine, Class 52 performed 11,000 hours of community service, earned 132 credits and had a 75% GED pass rate. The class had a 100% placement rate, with 53 returning to high school, 22 going on to higher education, 13 going directly into the workforce, eight joining the military, six going to trade school or participating in apprenticeships and six joining the job corps. One graduate will be attending the police academy.

Four cadets who enlisted in the Virginia Army National Guard were recognized during the ceremony and received a coin from Mercer. One cadet who joined the National Guard is already at basic training and was unable to attend the ceremony.

They also recognized cadets who enlisted in the active duty Army and Coast Guard.

“I think it’s important that you all see what your children have done over the last five and a half months and it’s also an opportunity to recognize our industry partners,” Chicoine said. 

Representatives from Tidewater Medical Training were on hand to honor the cadets who completed the six-week nurse’s assistant training course. The cadets completed the training in addition to their GED or credit recovery classes.

“They sacrificed their free time,” explained Dr. Delphoney Kargbo, the Commonwealth ChalleNGe post residential, placement and mentor coordinator. “They sacrificed a lot so they could make the grades for the Tidewater Medical staff. “

In addition, they recognized the three cadets from Class 52 who completed ironworkers training. 

“Getting a student their GED and getting them their credits without getting them a placement is just setting them up for failure,” Kargbo explained. “So we have been partnering with the iron workers. But their math test is extremely difficult. However these cadets wanted so desperately to be ironworkers that they studied and worked hard. These students are now not only ironworkers but they’re part of the ironworkers union.”

Eaves reminded the cadets none of their accomplishment would be possible without the dedication and hard work of the cadre at the academy.

“Please take the time to shake their hands,” Eaves explained. “Here I am 18 years later and I remember the names and I remember their faces [of the cadre from his ChalleNGe program].”

He also offered the graduates advice for the distant future.

“You’re gonna fall down and have setbacks,” he said. “There are days you’re not going to want to continue to push. Continue. Every day. Things will fall in line for you as long as you continue to push forward.

“Never give up on yourself,” he concluded. “Continue to chase your dreams. And continue to succeed.”

Chicoine echoed those thoughts as he said goodbye to Class 52.

“Always lead by example and control your attitude,” Chicoine reminded the graduates. “Be respectful of others. Do the right thing when no one is looking. And you know what I always say- give it your best effort every day. Good luck!”

Photos: FlickrCommonwealth ChalleNGe graduates 114 cadets from Class 52