National Guard Program Changes
Lives of At-Risk Teenagers

By Doug Sample

Cadet 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.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA / DoD Photo

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.

“I had 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.”

That message 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.

The students, 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.

“It 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.

Melenciano 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.”

But Melenciano 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.

He graduated 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.

“I decided 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.”

The first 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 explained.

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.”

She admits 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.”

“They were hurt by the things I was doing,” she said.

The 16-year 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.

Today, she 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,” she said.

Cadet Michael 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 have.”

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.

“That’s not a way to live,” he explained. “I’ve known people who have died over some stupid stuff like drugs.”

Redd graduated Youth ChalleNGe in December, earning the “Most Outstanding Cadet" award. He said the program really made a difference in his life.

“It 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.”

The reason 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.

“That 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.”

Longoria said after just a few weeks in the program, “you can see the change in students.”

“They begin to dream, they start to believe that they can do something else,” he said. “It’s amazing to them make that transition.”

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.”

“The 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.”

Call said 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.”