Not every young man or woman is meant to go to college. Some will struggle, for lack of interest, in even completing high school. In fact, staying out of trouble may even be a major undertaking. What do you do in a case like that?
Today’s story involves a young man named Matthew who took a different and unexpected path toward his life. He left everything he knew and set out for the adventure of a lifetime at the age of 16.
Matthew is a typical young man that we see today. He’s not a bad kid, but would be labeled as “at-risk”. He’s at that point in life when he could turn out OK, or take one of those sad journeys that end in heartbreak.
He knew he didn’t want to stay in high school, but what could a dropout do at 16 while he struggled to find his own way in life? How about applying for the Kentucky National Guard’s Bluegrass Challenge Academy at Fort Knox?
It’s a tough 22-week course where at-risk youth are under the guidance of drill sergeants and instructors 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The students, called cadets, are taken out of their comfort zone and plunked down amid a bunch of strangers. Their days begin at 5:30 a.m. and are spent in physical and mental challenges for the rest of it. Acceptance is not based on income. There are no fees for participating youth. Most will have earned their GED at the end of the course.
Televisions, iPods, CD players, and MP3’s are not allowed. Phone calls are allowed only at designated times through the course. Privileges are earned, not given. The cadets are organized into a platoon with several drill sergeants and teachers assigned to them.
The cadets eat, sleep, study, train and exercise together. There’s not a lot of individuality there. Instead they become a team. It builds unit cohesion, improves morale, and for the first time, they have something to be a part of.
Matthew finished his 22 weeks in December. The National Guard organization will continue to check up on Matthew for one year, trying to mentor and guide him in the right direction.
I asked Matthew 21 questions about his experience. Here are some of his answers.
Q: Where did you hear about the Challenge program?
A: My friend’s uncle and a middle-school baseball coach.
Q: How did your parent’s feel about your decision?
A: Supportive but surprised.
Q: Did you ever want to quit?
A: Yes, however, the drill sergeants and other cadets talked me out of it, and convinced me of what I knew all along, that it was in my best interest to stay.
Q: What was the toughest part of the program for you?
A: I would say being away from my family and just people I know in general.
Q: What part of the program did you enjoy the most?
A: Getting in great physical shape and my life on track.
Q: Have you made any new friends?
A: Of course. No one could make it through the program if they didn’t have any friends at the academy.
Q: Do you think you might miss it after you leave?
A: Most definitely. However, I would much rather be in my hometown. But the academy was my home for about six months.
Q: Have you met any people that you admire and hope to be like one day?
A: Yes, almost all of the staff at the academy, even the drill sergeants. They’re really hard on you, but even they have a heart.
Q: What have you learned about yourself from the program?
A: I learned that I took a lot of simple privileges for granted and that I have the ability to better myself.
Q: Do you think you will make any permanent changes in the way you live your life?
A: Yes, I will be more considerate and respectful to other people. I will also strive for a decent, steady career.
Q: What type of person do you think would most benefit from this program?
A: A bratty or spoiled teenager. One who makes his own choices despite who they may affect.
Q: Do you think you will be able to build on the gains you’ve made?
A: Yes, I will always remember the discipline and gratitude I acquired from the academy.
Q: What do you plan on doing once you leave the program?
A: Either join the military or attend a technical college and taking life from there.
Q: What was the saddest, happiest, and proudest memory you have from the program?
A: Graduation. The saddest was leaving the family (sergeants and friends) that I had bonded with at the academy. The happiest was getting to go home for good. The proudest was the feeling of accomplishment, which came from the great amount of effort I put forth while I was at the academy.
Well, Matthew, it sounds like you have a right to be proud. The above answers sounded like a mature adult to me. It sure wasn’t a “bratty or spoiled” kid.