Montana youth challenge: Challenge to change

2003-01-04T23:00:00Z Montana youth challenge: Challenge to change The Billings Gazette
January 04, 2003 11:00 pm

Stories By DONNA HEALY Photos By LARRY MAYER Of The Gazette Staff

FORT HARRISON - During her first night in the girls' barracks, Ciara Rehbein, a 16 year-old from Kalispell, slept badly.

"I'm used to staying up late and sleeping in," she said during a lull on the second day of the Montana National Guard Youth Challenge Program.

The teen cadets, high school dropouts from across Montana, spend the first two weeks of the five-month quasi military-style education program on the National Guard base at Fort Harrison, west of Helena.

Rehbein is ready to head home, and she thinks her mother may let her, if she promises to go back to high school. Her blonde hair is pulled into a pony tail. She is peeved, clearly put out by the experience.

"I don't want to stay. I can't believe I'm here. This really isn't me," she said.

She likes to write poetry. She misses her boyfriend. She resents the regimentation, the lack of free time.

Rehbein failed her last year in high school because she was focusing on the wrong things, she said.

Technically, the Youth Challenge program is voluntary. Cadets can leave whenever they want. But, during the parent orientation, Mike Royer, the program's director, urged parents to hang tough and refuse to let their youngster quit. No phone calls are allowed during the program's first two weeks.

Royer told the parents to steel themselves for that first phone call from their son or daughter begging to come home and promising to change.

"The greatest thing I need to get you to do is to say, 'Stay, stay, stay," Royer told them.

He warns that their sons and daughters have been heading down the wrong road.

"We're going to grab these kids before they're allowed to go any further down the road and turn them around before they're the future prison population," Royer said.

About three-fourths of the cadets have regularly used alcohol, drugs and tobacco, but less than 10 percent typically test positive during an initial drug-screening test. Only those who test drug-free are allowed to stay.

In 1999, Montana's National Guard launched the Youth Challenge program for high-school dropouts, funded by federal and state money in a 60-40 split.

When federal matching money unexpectedly became available in 1999, the program slid through the Legislature at the tail end of the legislative session. The program has battled for its existence at each legislative session since then.

State funding came close to being eliminated during the 2001 Legislature and again during last August's special session.

Royer described Chuck Swysgood, former state senator from Dillon, as the program's "guardian angel." Swysgood is the state budget director under Gov. Judy Martz.

Critics complain that the program was moved from the general fund, the all-purpose account sometimes described as the state's cash drawer, to a different fund, to save the program from being eliminated during last August's special session.

"It kept us from going after it in the special session," said Sen. John Cobb, R-Augusta.

Youth Challenge is a good program, Cobb said. But, when the state is cutting money for the mentally ill and for foster care, there are more needy people in worse trouble who need the state's help, he said.

"If that program was in the human service budget, it would probably be cut," Cobb said.

Lawmakers have also complained about the program's expense. The state picks up 40 percent of the cost of the program's $2.8 million annual budget.

Royer defends its effectiveness.

"We have an 80 percent long-term success rate with the entire spectrum of kids we deal with," he said.

A year after graduation, 80 percent of the program's graduates have stayed on a positive track by finding jobs, starting school or joining the military. The program costs about $14,000 per enrolled youth or $18,400 per graduate, with the state picking up 40 percent of those costs.

"This program not only changes lives, it saves lives," Royer said.

Of the 123 teens who arrive for the program's seventh Pre-Challenge session at Fort Harrison, 99 make it to Dillon two weeks later.

By the end of August, 90 cadets remain. Seventy-six make it to graduation in mid-December.

Up at 6 a.m., in class for five hours a day, they take life coping-skills classes along with academic subjects. More than 85 percent of the graduates complete their GEDs. They receive plenty of individual attention.

Any sign of disruptive behavior triggers push-ups.

From the start, the best discipline tool is the most dreaded one.

"They hate the group consequences," said Kerry O'Connor, the program's lead counselor. When one cadet messes up, the whole platoon drops to do push-ups or other physical training exercises.

Cadets involved in more serious rule violations are placed in MTT, the motivational training team. They wear orange road-construction vests, are isolated from the platoon, get assigned extra duties and additional PT.

"Negative consequences are definitely there to make their life uncomfortable," O'Connor said.

For some, removing the distractions of high school life allows them to focus.

"They get off track and forget there's goals and things outside the daily gratification," O'Connor said.

About one-fourth of the students participate in voluntary evening meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous programs in the community. Many of the cadets say they started drinking regularly at the age of 13.

"Marijuana seems to not even be an illegal drug when you're talking to the kids," O'Connor said.

Most of the cadets tend to fall into two broad groups. A large segment were once capable students, but got off focus, stopped applying much effort and fell behind. Those in a smaller group have never received much support at home and have large gaps in everything from schooling to life skills.

The teens who do best are the one who actually want to change, O'Connor said.

On a Saturday morning in late August, the cadets hustle along the dorm-hall corridors, mopping and dusting for the weekly dorm inspection. The three platoons vie for the title of "honor platoon," graded on academics, room inspections, drill and PT sessions. The title brings privileges, such as a Friday night movie. Cadets can also earn individual privileges based on performance.

On the girls' floor, tension escalates as the girls bicker over who has time to mop the bathroom. About 25 percent of the cadets are female.

Downstairs, the girl who has spent a week as the platoon's temporary sergeant, is being chewed out for belittling another cadet.

The cadre instructor chastises her failure to set the right lead.

"I tried to set the example for three days. It didn't work," the cadet shoots back.

"You have pride in yourself, but you can't take pride in your team?"

"I'm disgraced that I'm with this platoon," she tells him.

After another heated exchange, the cadre instructor demands that she apologize to the other cadet.

Upstairs, on the girls' floor, a cadet, carrying her toothbrush, scrambles through the hall. Since the bathroom's sinks have been wiped dry, she rinses with canteen water and spits in the laundry sink.

The girls are late, which may cost them points.

Instead of apologizing, the chastised platoon sergeant goes AWOL for a few minutes. She never moves more than 20 yards from the dorm.

A half-hour later, team leader Kelly Kimzey selects more than a dozen girls from the platoon. On the broken pavement, the girls start counting out push-ups, then switch to squats, flutter kicks and other exercises.

"Why are you out here?" Kimzey demands.

"Because we were arguing sir."

They count out several more rounds of rapid exercises.

"Do you enjoy this?"

"No, sir."

"We can do this every morning until this team is tight. Suck it up, ladies. Get your knees off the ground. You want to play games?"

"No, sir."

"Every morning I can play games. Get it right, ladies. You can have Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Whichever one you want, I'll give you."

Later, the Youth Challenge cadets stand in formation outside their dorm as the rain beats down. Cheers erupt when Second Platoon, "The Mad Dogs," is chosen "honor platoon." Afterward, the platoons set off on a 5-mile road march while counting cadence along the outskirts of town.


"Standing tall and looking good.

I ought to be in Hollywood.

Used to date a beauty queen.

Now I'm wearing Challenge green."

The girls' platoon has had a disheartening day.

"There's a lot of drama here. You'd be amazed," Rehbein said. After more than a month in the program, she still doesn't think Youth Challenge is right for her.

When she phoned home for the first time, she and her mother were both crying, but her mother refused to let her come home.

Rehbein has started getting used to the rules, but the emotions are intense. Rumors circulate, and fights break out. She misses listening to her music and having time to write. In her spare time, she says sarcastically, she cleans.

"It bothers me we can't have incense and candles. I wish I could have my lava lamp. I used to stare at it when I couldn't sleep," she said.

Earlier in the program, she went AWOL a couple of times. Once, she left at night with her roommate. The two of them walked around the parking lot and then out onto a street in Dillon.

In Third Platoon, Clay McCartney, a 17-year-old from Somers, is a few hours away from assuming command for a week's tryout as his platoon's sergeant.

"I'm actually enjoying this place," he said. "Two weeks ago, I started gaining in rank."

McCartney, who grew up along the shores of Flathead Lake, said the biggest challenge was leaving home. His family heard about the program on the radio the week before the session started.

"We'd run out of hope," said Clay's father, Marshall McCartney, an area marketing manager for Cellular One.

"We're just praying to God that this is what will wake him up, so he's not one who will get flushed down the drain," Marshall McCartney said.

His son was already 17 and looking at two or three more years of high school. He had no motivation, no idea what he wanted to do in life and didn't seem to care.

"We know he's no dummy," McCartney said. "Before he left, he was teaching himself Gaelic on the computer."

The Challenge program appealed to Clay, whose two stepbrothers had been in the Navy.

During the program's camping trip, he decided to try to find a job as a physical-fitness trainer. By graduation, he had already applied to attend Flathead Community College in the fall.

For some teens, the military-style discipline makes an amazing difference, Royer said.

"It's like a dry sponge to water. They soak it up. It provides a structure and stability and safety that they have not known," he said.

Luke Schultz's attitude changed when he decided he wanted to make it through the program.

Schultz, who at 17 is a muscular 6-footer, liked to get drunk with friends, go out and try to start fights..

He went to high school in Billings and Laurel before dropping out when he was 16.

"I haven't put this much effort into anything in a long time," he said.

In early November, the Challenge cadets headed home for a four-day leave.

Luke's mother, Laurie Schultz, waited anxiously for his arrival at their home west of Billings.

"Luke has always been a handful," she said.

For a while, she homeschooled her three sons. Luke was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but the medication made him "zombie-ish," she said.

"He could sit in school, but they don't make a pill that helps a bad attitude," she said.

Since he was smart, he was used to things coming easily. When they didn't, he quit.

"Luke was definitely in trouble," she said. "He was definitely heading down a path you don't want any kid to go down … he was just totally out of control. He would not listen to us at all, not at all.

"Here's this kid who's smart and could go places, but he's not. He's just hanging with his friends and getting into trouble."

She and her husband felt as if their hands were tied as parents unless Luke got into some serious trouble with the law.

His choices eventually boiled down to the Youth Challenge program or jail. It was a relief to drop him off at the Pre-Challenge program in Helena, she said.

"I was just that hopeless …. You just get so tired of being treated wrong by your own kid. For him to come and go as he pleased and have no rules."

The first signs of change were the nice letters Luke sent. He was uncharacteristically polite when they visited him at Dillon on Family Day.

Near the end of the program, Schultz said, the cadre instructors seemed to be preparing the cadets for life outside the strict boundaries of the program.

"They started getting harder on us the last weeks, riding you a little more, holding you to a little higher standard," Schultz said.

He plans to go to school to get a degree in computer science, either on his own or through the Air Force.

A steady procession of cadets graduating from the Youth Challenge program has passed through the office of Debbie White Grass Bull Shoe, who runs the Blackfeet Housing Drug Elimination Program in Browning.

About 19 percent of Youth Challenge graduates are Native American, and more than 20 teens from Browning have completed the program.

"I've mentored almost every one that has come out, so they don't fall down when they come out," Bull Shoe said. "I see the self-respect. They know that they can do something now. A lot of doors have opened up. They're on their way. They're on a different road."

Many of them return to the same homes, but with a different outlook, she said.

Before graduation, Rehbein dyed her blonde hair red.

In five months, the changes she has gone through are far more than cosmetic.

Before, she said, pursuing goals seemed like an unnecessary hassle.

"To me now, changing your life is really worth the struggle," she said.

During the program, she saw other cadets, whose experiences reflected her own, begin to change.

"Sooner or later, you see how you look in the mirror," she said.

She remembers her worst moment in the program, when the cadets hiked into a remote campsite. She violated the rules, drew the platoon's wrath and spent the whole night crying.

But she also remembers other moments, like the first snowfall, when her whole platoon made snow angels and members felt as fine and as carefree as 6-year-olds.

Donna Healy may be reached at 657-1292 or

About the program Here are some basics about the Montana National Guard Youth Challenge Program:

Mission: Assists Montana high-school dropouts, ages 16 to 18, to make the changes and develop the skills to become productive citizens.

History: Montana's National Guard launched the state program in 1999. It is one of 31 Challenge programs in the United States.

Program: The five-month, highly structured and regimented program starts with a two-week Pre-Challenge phase at Fort Harrison, a military base outside Helena. Military-style drills and strict discipline characterize the program's introductory phase.

For the second, 20-week phase, cadets live in a dorm at the University of Montana-Western campus in Dillon. Under strict supervision, they take classes and work toward completing their GEDs, learn life-skills and perform military-style physical training.

Adult volunteers mentor graduates for a year.

Although the National Guard runs the program, there is no military obligation or expectation after graduation.

The MYCP campus is tobacco-, alcohol- and drug-free.

Size: The Montana program runs two sessions a year and graduates an average of 76 youths each session.

To qualify: Youths must be Montana residents and high-school dropouts, ages 16 to 18. They may not be on parole or probation and must pass a drug-screening test.

Funding: Federal and state governments fund the program, with the federal government supplying 60 percent and the state paying 40 percent of the program's cost. There is no cost to the cadets or their parents.

Total annual budget: $2.8 million.

Total cost per youth: About $14,000. The state's share amounts to about $5,600 per youth. (If the program is measured only in terms of the youths who graduate, the total cost per graduate is about $18,400, with the state paying $7,370.)

Next session starts: Jan. 19.

For information: (800)-859-9206. The program's Web site is

Reflections offered on individual challenges

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