LITTLE ROCK – I recently spoke to the graduates of the Arkansas National Guard Youth Challenge, and today I would like to talk about the ways this program teaches at-risk youth in our state the skills they need to succeed.
In 1993, Arkansas was one of the first states to launch the pilot Youth Challenge, which is a military-style program for youth 16 to 18 years old. These are teenagers who likely won’t graduate from high school or who already have quit school. The program is strictly voluntary. None of the cadets is under a court order to enroll in the program. But some of the cadets have been “volun-told” to enroll by their parents, as Director Joe Mallett jokes.
The young men and women come from all over Arkansas, and they are from all social, economic, and racial backgrounds. The program lasts five-and-a-half months, and Youth Challenge volunteers mentor them for a year after they leave the program.
Youth Challenge is a culture shock for most of the cadets. Many of them come from homes where drug addiction among family members is common. They are accustomed to living without rules, and they have limited basic life skills.
That is why the training at Youth Challenge is tough and starts the moment they arrive at Camp Robinson, where they live in refurbished Army barracks. In the first couple of weeks, each cadet must complete a 3-mile, 6-mile, and 10-mile march. Then they move into the residential phase, which includes life-skills lessons as well as classroom instruction.
Youth Challenge focuses on eight core elements: academic; life-coping skills; health and hygiene; responsible citizenship; service to the community; leadership; and physical fitness.
When they graduate, they will leave with skills that will improve the chances that the quality of their life will be much better than it would have been without Youth Challenge. Some return to high school. Some join the military. Some find a job, and others go to college.
As to the funding for Youth Challenge, 75 percent of the funding comes from the federal government, the rest from the state. But the cost is worth every penny.
Dr. Joye Henrie, who grew up in Little Rock, was a member of the second Youth Challenge class, which she joined in order to stay out of trouble for skipping school. The program turned her life around. She earned a bachelor’s degree, joined the Air Force and earned a doctorate in psychology. Now she is in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Youth Challenge diverts many young people from choices that lead to poverty, drug abuse, or a life of crime. In Arkansas, we have many programs that give people a second chance. Invariably, some of the graduates of Youth Challenge will need a second chance. But as Joe Mallet says, a lot of kids have never had a first chance. That’s what Youth Challenge offers them.