By Stephanie Shor, News Editor
What happens to a 16-year-old high school dropout? Where do they go? What will become of their future? That lonely, alienated youth wandering downtown, hands in pockets, with nowhere to go and no one to hear when they whisper for help at night. Since Congress approved the program in 1993, the Hawai’i National Guard has responded to that collective cry for salvation with their Youth Challenge Academy.
Operating in 30 states and territories nationwide, the youth academy generally operates in three separate phases to adequately introduce troubled teens back into a functioning position within their community. A two-week “pre-challenge phase” serves to introduce the young initiates to the program and give both parties an idea of what to expect, both from the candidate and from the organization itself.
Upon completion of the pre-challenge phase, candidates are officially initiated as “cadets” and enter the 20-week residential phase of the program. On September 10, new members of the cadet council were sworn in at a ceremony attended by Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan, former Hawai’i Community College student. This marks the beginning of the essential core of their journey in a “structured, quasi-military environment” focused on reinstating a sense of self, accomplishment and striving toward self-discipline.
According to Outreach Coordinator Kathy Rodriguez-Herring, “these youth are making a difference for their community and themselves through structure, self-discipline and education.” Cadets primarily focus on “kōkua malama” in giving back to the community that has raised them and that they will continue to support in the future. Current programs include “A-Dopt a Highway, Volcano Rain Forest 5K race, Divine Mercy Foundation, Civil Defense, Poho’iki Farm, Kamoleao Laulima Native Garden, Yeshua Outreach, (and) Veteran Cemetery.”
These young adults are immersed in extensive volunteer work as well as social activities aimed at reintroducing them to a healthy daily lifestyle among their peers. The goal is ultimately to promote continued education at either a higher institution of learning, the military or a technical school. With successful completion of the 20-week residential course, cadets are then highly encouraged to take place in an aftercare program for 12 months in which they are paired with a mentor to provide support down the line.
An integral stage in development for at-risk youth is developing a life-plan which will set them on the path toward career, family or college and military training. Adult mentors from the community are interviewed and reviewed during the residential phase of the program and matched with appropriate teenagers to provide guidance throughout the transitional period, which continues on to a life-long adviser relationship.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national dropout rate for high school students has decreased from 12 percent in 1990 to 7 percent in 2011 however, statistics still show that as much as 20 percent of high school students in Hawai’i alone do not continue to graduation. Many of YCA’s graduates now attend UH Hilo and Hawai’i Community College and continue to make a difference within their personal life-plan. As the year continues for those graduates as well as community members watching their progress, their accomplishments will only continue to reflect our collective happiness growing.
If you wish to become a mentor to a Youth Challenge Academy cadet, please visit http://www2.ngycp.org/national/resources-for-mentors/ for more information.