The Hawaii National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Academy helps at-risk adolescents aim high.

A good challenge often spurs the greatest growth.

Many of the world’s most notable leaders and thinkers knew this, and so they embraced hardship, knowing that the experience, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable in the moment, would be the catalyst for a better, brighter future.

Similarly, the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program (NGYCP) provides at-risk adolescents the opportunity to turn their lives around through an evidence-based program modeled after the structure, discipline and results oriented training of the National Guard.

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The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program provides at-risk teens the opportunity to turn their lives around through an evidence-based program modeled after the structure, discipline and results-oriented training of the National Guard.

“Our duty and responsibility is leadership— we have to be that positive leadership for these kids,” says Juan D. Williams, director of the Hawaii National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Academy, one of 35 NGYCP sites around the country.

“We’ve found that with these kids, all they’re looking for is someone to bond with, and a lot of times, the reason why they get in trouble is due to peer pressure. But once you get them away from that environment and put them in a structured environment, such as this, you start seeing the better in them,” he shares.

Williams, who is a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Marines Corps, has worked with the Hawai‘i academy for eight years, during which time he has seen hundreds of teens rise to the challenges put before them and transform into productive, responsible young adults.

“There’s not an achievement that the cadets or the program hasn’t met,” Williams says. “It makes you so proud to see the outcome [of this program], and on graduation day, when that cadet comes to you and says, ‘Thank you for not giving up on me,’ and shakes your hand, that’s the best feeling you could ever have in this world.”

The road to graduation is a rocky one for these cadets, who are high school dropouts ages 16-18 years old, often experiencing difficulties in their homes or with authority figures as well.

“The reason why we call this the ‘Youth ChalleNGe’ is because the ages of 16 though 18 are the most challenging times in a person’s life. That’s when you’re sitting on the fence, and you can go either way. We figured, if we captured those ages, we’d be able to give them the guidance and direction they need that will lead them toward success,” Williams explains of the program, which operates out of two 100-bed facilities at Kalaeloa on O‘ahu and in Hilo on Hawai‘i Island.

“Here, the cadets earn a high school diploma in the 5-and-a-half months,” he says. “What is ironic is these are the same kids who were failing at school or didn’t want to go to school. The reason why they get their diploma, here, in 5-and-a-half months, is that it’s a regimented program. That’s why we’re so successful—because of the structure.”

The Youth ChalleNGe Academy uses what is known as an “Eight Core Component” framework to train its cadets to be active, contributing members of society.

This intervention model focuses on the holistic development of the cadet—from academic excellency to physical fitness to leadership/ fellowship to job skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, life-coping skills and service to community—all which are the foundation of the experiential-learning model implemented at the academy.

“These Eight Core Components are what is needed to help them be successful in life,” Williams states. “We want them to be responsible citizens, and we teach them the importance of that in a way they understand; that’s what the program is all about.”

Recently, the nonprofit education and social research organization MDRC concluded a multi-year evaluation of the NGYCP and found it significantly improves the educational attainment, employability and earning potential of those who participate in the program.

Additionally, Promising Practices Network identified the NGYCP as a “proven” program, meaning that the program’s practices are proven to improve outcomes for children based on certain evidence criteria.

The National Guard Bureau (NGB) is responsible for management and oversight of Youth ChalleNGe Academies throughout the nation, including those in Hawai‘i, which celebrated their 20th anniversary this past summer.

“Hawai‘i is one of the rare programs that has survived 20 years,” Williams says with a proud grin, adding that its high retention rate (an astounding 87-90 percent of cadets graduate each session) is why NGB quickly green-lighted a second Hawai‘i program when the request came through in 2010.

“They approved that right away, because they saw the great things that this state was doing for the cadets,” he explains.

NGYCP is authorized and funded through the Department of Defense. Locally, both Youth ChalleNGe Academies receive 75 percent of funding from the federal government, with the remaining 25 percent coming from the state. This allows admission to the academy to be free of cost for cadets and their families. “The total cost per cadet would be $16,000,” says Williams. “Of that number, the state pays $4,000 per cadet. You compare that to the conventional school, which is $13,000 per student, that’s a good ratio.”

The program is a proven to be a smart investment, as a recent RAND Corporation cost-benefit analysis found that NGYCP generates $2.66 in benefits for every dollar expended on the program, a return on investment of 166 percent, a return that is substantially above that for other rigorously evaluated social programs that target disadvantaged youth.

“Kids are the future of everything— they’re the future of our state, the future of our nation, they’re going to be the future leaders of tomorrow. If you want to know how great a nation is going to be or how great a state is going to be, you look at what that nation or that state is doing to foster a kid or to mentor a kid or to mold a kid—to train them for success,” Williams says.

The National Guard Youth Foundation (NGYF) serves as an advocate for the NGYCP and works toward developing, supporting and enhancing the program. The nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization provides resources such as scholarships and job placement assistance to Youth ChalleNGe Academy graduates to ensure they maintain a path of success beyond graduation day.

The foundation, through its contributors and partners, also distributes much-needed funds and donations to all NGYCP sites throughout the country to support any additional needs the program may have beyond what the federal and state funds can/will cover.

“We assist adolescents who drop out of school with the opportunity to improve their life skills, education and employability, creating the next generation skilled workforce in America,” says NGYF president Lou Cabrera. “Any student within the 50 states and U.S. protectorates who drops out of school and commits to pursuing a second chance can have the opportunity to attend college, compete for quality employment and become self-sustaining and contributing citizens through their participation in the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program.”

Since the inception of the Kalaeloa facility in 1994, both of Hawai‘i’s Youth ChalleNGe Academies have witnessed nearly 4,000 cadets receive their high school diplomas or GEDs.

Of that number, nearly all graduates go on to find employment, continue their education or join the military.

“I have many, many success stories from this program, I’d be here for five days telling them!” Williams laughs. “But really, this is a great program. One day, I hope we have a program on each island so we can take care of our kids.

“Our motto here is that we treat our cadets the way we want to be treated, and that’s with fairness, firmness, dignity and compassion, because that’s the way human beings want to be treated,” Williams continues.

“Everybody has the potential to change to be a better person, all they need is to be exposed to something positive; all they need is a little guidance, direction and patience.”

To learn more about the National Guard Youth Foundation, visit www.ngyf.org.

Photos courtesy of National Guard Youth Foundation