Deputy Defense Secretary Honored for Support of Youth Program
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2007 A musical selection performed during the 2007 National Youth Foundation’s ChalleNGe Champion Award Dinner was the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England (center) accepts his ChalleNGe Champion Award from Louisiana U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, co-chair of the National Guard Youth Foundation. The presentation was made at the National Guard Youth Foundation's 2007 ChalleNGe Champions Gala, Feb. 27, in Washington. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
For National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program cadets, the song’s lyrics rang true, thanks, in part, to the six “exceptional leaders” honored here last night.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England was one of the individuals recognized for wide-ranging support of the Youth ChalleNGe Program. Retired Air National Guard Lt. Gen. John Conaway, National Guard Youth Foundation chairman, described England as “one of the best friends the Youth ChalleNGe has.”
“Despite his overwhelming daily responsibilities, … he always makes time to support the ChalleNGe program,” Conaway said. “He meets with cadets as he travels the country and includes them in a wide range of events, such as commissioning of ships, dedication of libraries, Major League Baseball games, and the national America Supports You Freedom Walk.”
England thanked everyone involved with the program for their leadership and dedication, but turned the limelight back on the cadets. “The real champions are the ones who have accepted the challenge to achieve, to become better people, and to become better citizens,” he said. “The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program … is an investment in the development of our young Americans, and this investment pays great dividends.”
It pays dividends for each of the participants as well as for the country and the military, he said. England added that America is great because its citizens live in a country where everyone can excel through hard work and commitment.
The National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe Program is a voluntary, preventive program designed to give at-risk youth a second chance. It accomplishes this by helping 16- to 18-year-old high school drop-outs improve their life skills, education levels and employment potential. The 17-month program, which includes a five-and-a-half month residential phase, began in 1993.
The success rate of this program is 96 percent, according to program officials. To date, more than 70,000 cadets have graduated from one of about 30 programs in states across the country.
Army Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, Louisiana adjutant general; former President George H.W. Bush; Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss; Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano; and the Merrill Lynch Company also received ChalleNGe Champion Awards. Unable to attend, Bush accepted his award in a previously taped address.
The evening’s program, emceed by actor Lorenzo Lamas, also served as an opportunity to explain just how important the Youth ChalleNGe Program is to at-risk youth and to the country. Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, did just that.
“Every one of these young men and women … have challenges to overcome that most mere mortals would succumb to, but not these young men and women,” Blum said. “They are America’s treasure, and I am so proud that they have volunteered to put themselves in a program that will guarantee them a future for their life.”
Blum said he was a “nonbeliever” in the program when it began in 1993. That was until he begrudgingly attended his first Youth ChalleNGe event. “(I) thought that the Youth ChalleNGe program would absolutely be a distracter for my readiness training and it had no purpose in the Department of Defense,” he said. “Man, I could not have been more wrong.”
Since then his opinion has done an about-face.
“This program truly adds value to America,” Blum said. “More than 70,000 young men and women have … graduated from this program and now are being members of their community, adding value to their community and their state, building the society of this nation, building the future of this nation rather than being a burden on our society or, worse, a predator on our society.
“I salute them for that,” he added.
Blum and his counterparts weren’t the only ones lauding the program last night, however. Graduates of various programs stepped up to the microphone to tell their stories of how the Youth ChalleNGe Program steered them toward the right track and helped turn their lives around.
“I am a high school drop-out, (and) my son is my life,” Kimberly Brown, 18, from the Virginia Commonwealth Challenge Program said, referring to her 1-year-old son. “Before I came to this program I had a nasty attitude. That’s not me no more.
“Since I came here, I show discipline and I have respect for myself and as well for others,” she added. “I’m proud of myself, because I realize that I am somebody and I’m going to be somebody in life.”
Josh Logan, a graduate of the Georgia National Guard’s program, took the audience a step further down the road that a graduate can travel. He went from troubled youth to plastic surgeon after being part of the first Youth ChalleNGe Program class at Fort Stewart, Ga.
“I’d been a freshman in high school three times, and I’d finally quit school. This was much to the dismay of my parents because they, like any other parent, had high hopes for me,” he said, adding that his father, then a Georgia National Guardsman, introduced him to the program. “What I learned during my time in the Youth ChalleNGe Program was a timeless and valuable life principle, and that’s personal responsibility.”
Logan said his experience affected not only his academic work, but also his physical fitness and his spiritual life. “I had some bumps in the road when I left the program, but the most important point was that the seeds had been planted,” he said.
As the audience began to sit after their standing ovation for Logan, Microsoft representatives had a surprise up their collective sleeve. They announced the company was making a $3.7 million software grant donation to support the technology and the training programs of the National Guard Youth Foundation.
Then country music star Craig Morgan stepped up to the plate and played several of his biggest hits. But he couldn’t let the crowd leave without issuing his own challenge and taking it on himself as well.
“If you’re in a white state, you need to get busy,” he said, referring to a U.S. map depicting states with Youth ChalleNGe Program in blue and those without one – including his home state -- in white. “It is going to be my goal before this time next year that we make Tennessee a blue state.”