Dec. 26, 2006

A special graduation

Courtesy of Suffolk News Herald

For five Suffolk teenagers, Saturday (Dec. 16) was a day they and their families thought would never come: graduation.

It was not the traditional high school graduation with cap and gown, tassel turning and cap throwing. But the same sense of excitement, of accomplishment, was there.

James Boone, Taylor Layne, Louis Rodriguez, Anthony Talley and David Wicks all graduated from The Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe, a program located at Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach, designed to help Virginia’s at-risk teens through military-style discipline and structure. They go through boot camp, also known as “hardcore,” before diving into academic lessons, as well as others, including: life-coping skills, work skills, citizenship, leadership, health education, physical fitness and community service.

The program began in Virginia in 1994 and is one of 30 similar programs in 24 states and Puerto Rico that comprise the National Guard Youth Challenge Program. It is designed for teens who need a more structured environment than the typical high school experience.

Class President Renee Smith reminded her fellow graduates of the realization that brought many of them to the program, and kept others in it through the long haul: “If we wanted to change our lives, we either had to put up, or shut up.”

Ultimately, more than 150 students, or cadets as they are known in the program, graduated Saturday. Some earned their GEDs, others gained the necessary skills and discipline to get jobs or go back to finish high school. Their most important lesson, Smith said, was respect for themselves and others.

“Don’t let anyone, and I mean anyone, take away from you what you learned here,” she said.

The program is slightly more than 17 months; the first six months are spent at the camp where students train and learn. All cadet military training is supervised by the Cadre, a group of retired and/or current military personnel, and state-certified teachers are responsible for all GED instruction.

Then, the real challenge begins, said Col. T.M. Early, director of the program. The cadets are sent back into the real world where, for a year, they are guided by a mentor who will help them follow through with a life plan, whether it be continued education, employment or military service.

Congresswoman Thelma Drake, the guest speaker for the event, gave the graduates a few nuggets of wisdom to take with them: always put others first; do more than others expect of you; and never give up. She also said good judgment n or knowing when to lead and when to follow n is key in life, as is self-confidence.

“Congratulations on your success,” she said. “May it be just the beginning.”

A major component of the program is the volunteer work. Cadets gave their time to a variety of places, including the Virginia Beach SPCA, NAS Oceana Commissary, and maintaining the bus fleet for Virginia Beach Public Schools. Wicks received a certificate of recognition for his work at the Commissary.

All five cadets were excited about graduating and their accomplishments. While most of them came to see their Cadre and fellow cadets as family, each is eager to move on to the next phase in their lives.

“I’m on top of the world,” said Rodriguez.

Boone plans to attend the Job Corps program and join the Virginia National Guard. Rodriguez will work at S&K Menswear, and plans to enlist in the Army, with hopes of transferring to the Marines. Layne will work for Maid in Heaven until she turns 17, when she will take the ASVAB and join the Navy. Talley will attend Tidewater Community College. Wicks will work at Wal-Mart, and in March he hopes to attend ITT Tech or ECPI.

“It’s amazing what kids can do in a different setting,” said Robert Thompson, Talley’s grandfather.

Tammy Layne, Taylor’s mom, agreed. Her daughter is a much different person from the one who went to Camp Pendleton so many weeks ago.

“I’m just so proud of her,” she said.

The Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe is free for participants and is fully funded through partnerships with the Department of Defense and the state. Candidates must be drug free, between the ages of 16 and 18 and currently living in Virginia. The program does not accept those currently charged with or convicted of felony offenses, and candidates must enter the ChalleNGe program voluntarily. Classes are offered January to June, and July to December.


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