RAWLINS, Wyo. — Their motto is simple — courage to change.
But the road to change requires discipline and drive.
For each cadet class attending the Wyoming National Guard's Cowboy Challenge Academy the goal is to come out the other side of training with the values, life skills, education, and employment potential to be responsible and productive Wyoming citizens.
The academy, a 5 and a half month residential program, seeks to transform at-risk teenagers through a quality education that instills cowboy ethics to give them hope and opportunity for a better future.
Core components of the program include academics, citizenship, life-coping and employment skills, civic service, leadership and physical fitness.
"We try to give them the skills so they have tools in their toolbox that they can use when they graduate from this program and go on to the next step in their lives, whether that's returning to high school or entering into the workforce," said Region One Recruiter Charley Stoneking.
The cadets' day is regimented and structured. They wake at 6 a.m. and hit the rack at 10 p.m. for lights out. In between is a full day learning, physical training and character building.
"The first two weeks there are no academics," Stoneking told the Rawlins Daily Times (http://bit.ly/1lb48Y2). "We focus on team building, learning how to wear a uniform, learning how to march, how to treat each other with respect and how to treat themselves with respect."
The National Guard's Youth Challenge Program began in 1991, when the House Joint Armed Service Committee tasked the National Guard to develop a plan to help at-risk teens and "add value to America."
By providing values, skills, education, and discipline to young people using the structure and esprit de corps of the military model, the Youth Challenge Program began a three year pilot program in 1993.
The Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy opened its doors in January 2006, and is located in Guernsey and resides primarily in Building 505 on the State's National Guard Camp Guernsey Joint Training Facility.
To apply for the program, a prospective cadet must be between 16-18 years old and have withdrawn from high school — although in some cases dual enrollment is possible. They cannot have a felony arrest and cannot be court ordered to attend.
"It's important the kids have to want to come," Stoneking said. "Mom and dad can't drag them down here by their ear and drop them off. The kids have to volunteer to come."
None of the cadets are allowed to have cellphones, Internet access or be exposed to news. They must do chores and are responsible for cleaning their barracks.
Stoneking believes when you provide structure and boundaries children will succeed in life.
"Once they accept that everything around them is OK and it is OK to change, they thrive," he said. "We provide an environment to recognize that there is room for change."
One of the primary components of the academy allows cadets to earn their GED.
"We are not here to do these things because it is fun for us, it's because there are too many inbound choices," Stoneking said.
"If we remove the easy options in life and focus on the fundamentals of a GED level education then we see success. Eighty percent of the cadets are on the GED path, with a graduation rate of 90 percent."
The Cowboy Challenge is funded with federal dollars provided through the Department of Defense, National Guard Bureau and matching funds from the Wyoming Legislature. The program is free of charge to the cadets.
Upon graduation from the Residential Phase, cadets enter a 12-month Post-Residential Phase monitored and supported by a matched mentor trained by academy staff.
"This is the longest pole in our tent. It's the thing that has the most impact on the kids, and something we really have the least control over," Stoneking said.
"We ask the cadets to identify two mentors in their life so when they return after the residential program they have people outside of the home they can lean on for support and guidance."
The cadets meet with their mentors once a week for one year, and in turn the mentors speak with academy staff once a month during that year to track cadet successes and challenges.
Information from: Rawlins (Wyo.) Daily Times, http://www.rawlinstimes.com