National Guard Program Changes
Lives of At-Risk Teenagers
By Doug Sample
Though he came
from a stable family background in Brooklyn, N.Y., former National
Basketball Association star and current talk show host John Salley,
who serves as a national spokesperson for the National Guard’s
“Youth ChalleNGe” program, explained why he relates
to what many at-risk youth go through.
Michael Redd and Army 1st Lt. Teddy Call of the Aiken, S.C.,
Youth ChalleNGe camp, were among dozens of cadets and leaders
who came to Washington to ask for more funding for the program.
Redd, a former drug dealer, graduated from the program in
December, earning the “Most Outstanding Cadet”
award. He is set to join the Army upon returning to South
Carolina next week.
by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA / DoD Photo
a great upbringing — a mother and father that cared about me.
… I had coaches who looked out for me,” Salley said.
“But I also wanted to do what everybody else did. I wanted
to be in this crazy crew. And as I think back of my friends —
Sam, Don, Lloyd, Pierre — all these kids are dead.”
hit home to dozens of at-risk students who once faced the same
fate and who came here to meet with lawmakers to urge them to
increase funding for Youth ChalleNGe.
many of them former drug dealers and gang members who dropped
out of high school, all graduated from the 17-month military-style
program that has helped thousands like them earn high school diplomas
or equivalency certificates and put them back on the road to life.
was just a matter of time before I ended up dead or in jail, so
I decided to take one last chance at life — get my life in order,”
said Isaiah Melenciano, 19, of Albuquerque, N.M., now a specialist
in the Army.
was a straight-A student and basketball player in high school,
an advanced piano student and an expert in shop class. However,
he said, he found himself on the wrong path and traded his good
grades for a life of drugs and gangs. “I was doing all the
wrong things, hanging out late at night” he said. “I
was good in school, but as soon as left the building it all just
left my head.”
was smart enough to know his life was headed in the wrong direction.
He joined Youth ChalleNGe on the advice of a friend who had gone
through the program.
in June 2002 and joined the military two days prior to graduation.
He is assigned to a National Guard air defense artillery unit
in Roswell, N.M.
that once I put my mind to something as demanding as the military,
I was real good at it,” he said. “If you’ve
got someone on you all the time, it makes you better.”
words to come out of Jessica Worsech’s mouth are usually
‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, sir.” You tell her
to never mind the formalities, and she responds, “Yes, sir.”
She is a whole new Jessica, much more respectful of others, and
a far cry from the Helena, Mont., native who came to Youth ChalleNGe
in Dillon a few weeks ago. She is disciplined, smarter and more
physically fit than ever, ready for a life in the Marine Corps,
she said. She plans to join the Corps upon graduating from the
program. “A lot of my family were in the Marines,”
She said life
at the Youth ChalleNGe campus is difficult, because she misses
her family. And the training is tough, she said, but “I’ve
learned to accept it.”
drugs and alcohol made life much more tougher, especially for
her family. She said she came to Youth ChalleNGe “out of
fear of losing my family.”
were hurt by the things I was doing,” she said.
old said she spent most days skipping school, hanging out with
friends and drinking. “One year I skipped school every day
for an entire year,” she said. She had dropped out.
smiles when see says that life is behind her now, and that she
will get her high school equivalency certificate upon completing
the program. “I love my new way of life 100 percent,”
Redd’s story is much the same as those of his peers. As
with many Youth ChalleNGe students, drugs were a major problem
for him. Redd said he earned money selling drugs. “I just
stopped caring about school, because I saw money,” he said.
“So I ran to (that money), instead of doing what I should
As Redd prepares
for an Army career — he leaves for in-processing this month —
he said some of his buddies that he hung out with in Aiken, S.C.,
are in jail or still on the streets. Redd said he longer cares
to live that way.
not a way to live,” he explained. “I’ve known
people who have died over some stupid stuff like drugs.”
Youth ChalleNGe in December, earning the “Most Outstanding
Cadet" award. He said the program really made a difference
in his life.
just kind of clicked when I joined Youth ChalleNGe that I can
go to college and do something with my life,” he said. “If
it hadn’t been for Youth ChalleNGe, I would have been working
a minimum wage job somewhere. Now, I can make something of myself.”
for the dramatic change in many students who come to the Youth
ChalleNGe program is the environment, said Army Maj. Art Longoria,
director of the New Mexico program.
environment is very structured, military disciplined, and the
kind of order that many students want in their life,” he
said. “Some of them may have not had strong adult influences
in their life. … We give them that kind of structure, then
offer them opportunities along the way to experience success.”
after just a few weeks in the program, “you can see the
change in students.”
begin to dream, they start to believe that they can do something
else,” he said. “It’s amazing to them make that
Army 1st Lt.
Teddy Call, director for the Youth ChalleNGe camp in Aiken, said
the program gives students a second opportunity by “increasing
self-esteem, and giving the drive and motivation for the future.”
goal is to make them a productive, functioning part of their community,”
he said. “That’s all we want, for them to go back
and have the educational skills or the work ethic and work skills
to be productive in their community.”
though many aspects of the Youth ChalleNGe program are military
in nature, the aim is not to recruit students for the military.
However, he added, “a good number of them (19 percent) will
decide to join the military after graduation.”