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National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Grads Seek Funding

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2005 – As members of Congress heard passionate stories here March 3 of how a National Guard youth program is changing lives, lawmakers across the street were debating whether to provide funding that would keep the program alive.

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Cadet Robert L. Jackson speaks to lawmakers and fellow Youth ChalleNGe cadets during a luncheon at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., March 3. Former basketball start and current television talk-show host John Salley looks on. Jackson, a high school dropout, plans to attend college upon graduating from the National Guards Youth ChalleNGe program, for which Salley is a national spokesman Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA

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Across the country, the National Guard's "Youth ChalleNGe" programs, which started in 1993 to help high school dropouts attain equivalency diplomas and job skills, is hoping to expand -- but it needs more funding to do so.

But money also is needed in some states just to keep the program going, said 1st Lt. Teddy Call, director of the Aiken, S.C., Youth ChalleNGe program. "We're on the borderline of losing this program in some states," he said.

Funding for the program is allocated through the Defense Department with contributions from states. Call said DoD pays 60 percent of the cost for the program, while the states pay 40 percent. He added that states are looking for more of a "75-25 percent split." Such a division of funding, he said, would allow for more states to afford the program. Twenty-nine states have Youth ChalleNGe programs, and 17 more are on a waiting list to start them.

West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd introduced a bill March 3 to amend Title 32 of the U.S. Code to, among other things, increase the maximum federal share of the costs for state National Guard Youth ChalleNGe programs.

Youth ChalleNGe is a 17-month, military-style training program for high school dropouts ages 16-18. The voluntary program teaches students life skills and helps them earn high school equivalency certificates, improve their employment potential and go on to higher education, officials said.

During breakfast and lunch meetings March 3 on Capitol Hill, dozens of Youth ChalleNGe graduates from 29 states met with lawmakers to share stories on how the program has changed their lives, and to encourage support for keeping the program going.

Felicia Ridgeway, a beautiful young girl with long, curly, brown hair, broke down in tears as she explained how the program lifted her from a life of shame.

Ridgeway, who graduated from the Youth ChalleNGe program in Jacksonville, Fla., said she was 11 when she began selling and using drugs, mainly cocaine, and smuggling guns in and out of the United States. "I was part of a drug cartel," she said. "I did whatever I wanted, when I wanted. I was doing anything and everything you could think of that no one in their lifetime should ever do."

She told the audience the life she chose led to dropping out of high school, running away and living with an abusive boyfriend. "Truthfully, I would be dead right now," she said behind tears. "I would be dead if I was not here. A lot of my friends are dead. This is something serious; we need more programs like this.

"It's changed my life, and it will changes others," she continued. "There are a thousand kids out there like me that could be telling this story. And many of them won't be standing here, because they didn't get the chance that I got."

Like others seated at the event, Cadet Robert L. Jackson, who came here from the Thunderbird Youth Academy in Pryor, Okla., also told of how the program turned his life around.

His message to Congress: "This program right now not only deserves the attention of Congress, but I think it deserves the attention of the world."

Jackson came to Youth ChalleNGe after being involved with drugs and alcohol and being expelled from school.

"I went from rock bottom to having a future," he said. "I can see that if I was still in the situation I was in, I wouldn't be here right now."

One argument the National Guard has for keeping the Youth ChalleNGe program going and expanding it to other states has been its success. According to the National Guard Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed to support Youth ChalleNGe, this year the program helped more than 5,000 at-risk students get high school equivalency certificates. More than 56,000 young people have graduated since the program began.

Foundation officials say 90 percent of program's graduates become active members of society, either by joining the work force or continuing their education. Even more beneficial to the Guard is that about one in every five Youth ChalleNGe graduates joins the military.

Then there is the cost advantage.

Foundation officials estimate that the program saves taxpayers an average of $109 million each year by keeping at-risk students out of juvenile corrections facilities. That figure is based on costs of $14,000 a year per Youth ChalleNGe student, vs. $40,000 a year for youths detained in correctional facilities, officials said.

In addition, 20 percent of students enrolled in Youth ChalleNGe programs are taken off federal assistance programs, officials report.

"If we don't spend the money on them now, we will be spending even more money on them later," said Lisa Boka, a former public school teacher who now teaches social science, government and history at the Dillion Youth Challenge program in Montana. "We have to catch them now, while they are still salvageable. If not, I don't know what will happen to them."

"This is a very important situation, something that money has to be put into," said former National Basketball Association champion and current talk-show host John Salley, who serves as national spokesperson for the program. "If not, then we're going to be sorry. It basically comes down to 'Pay us now, or pay for it later.'" Cadet Jackson offered a point of view that didn't mention the funding issue. "The real issue is how do we keep young people like me out of a situation of devastation and sorrow," he said.

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National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program

Click photo for screen-resolution imageFormer Army officer Kelley Perdew, who emerged as the winner in the first season of the television program The Apprentice and serves as a national spokesperson for Youth ChalleNGe, speaks to lawmakers and cadets at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., March 3. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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