Column: S.C. Guard program helps refocus at-risk youths’ lives

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Guest columnist Richard Eckstrom is the comptroller general of South Carolina.

It’s one of society’s most important challenges – rescuing at-risk youth from a life of crime, drugs or hardship.
Across the state and nation, people from all walks of life stand united in the shared goal of reaching out to troubled teens before it’s too late. Civic clubs, church groups, school organizations, government agencies and individual citizens alike devote much time, effort and resources toward helping at-risk young people.
There are a wide range of mentorship programs, camps and other initiatives that aim to help teens refocus their lives. One shining example is the S.C. Youth ChalleNGe Academy, an initiative sponsored by the S.C. National Guard.
The Youth ChalleNGe Academy is a rigorous, five-month-long, boot camp-style program designed to impose structure and develop life skills in South Carolina teens between the ages of 16 and 18.
It’s a voluntary program, and most of the teens who enroll have had trouble in, been expelled from, or dropped out of school. To be considered for the program, teens must have an assigned mentor (who is chosen by the teen or his or her parents, but must be approved by the academy) and undergo an admission interview.
Developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, our Youth ChalleNGe program uses current and retired members of the S.C. Army National Guard or other branches of the military to work with the teens.
The program focuses on eight key areas – academic excellence, life-coping skills, job skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, service to community, leadership/followership and physical fitness.
The teen cadets live in barracks and attend schools on the S.C. Army National Guard’s McCrady Training Center, located on the back border of Fort Jackson.
“The Youth ChalleNGe Academy is not for everyone. It’s not a summer camp; it’s tough,” says the Youth ChalleNGe web page.
After graduating from the military-based camp, the cadets return home and continue working long term with a mentor in their community to seriously pursue their educational or career objectives.
The ultimate goal of the program is to prepare the cadets to earn their General Equivalency Diploma (GED), attend college or enter the military. Most meet that goal.
I recently visited McCrady Training Center, where the Youth ChalleNGe Academy is hosted, and spoke with Guard members about the program. I was already acquainted with the Youth ChalleNGe program and the positive effect it has on the lives of at-risk young people, but I never cease to be amazed to see how motivated these kids become after just a few weeks in the program.
This is a program that’s paying huge dividends. It’s turning kids around by giving them hope.
We can’t afford to lose any more of South Carolina’s human potential to a seemingly endless cycle of hopelessness that can ruin lives and communities.