Friday, August 27, 2010

LaLona Speaks at the National Guard Youth Challenge

 Peggy and I in the Blackhawk helicopter

Last Friday around 7:30 AM I boarded a Black Hawk helicopter and was flown with VIP treatment to Fort Stewart, Georgia, home of the National Guard Youth Challenge Academy.  My time there was incredibly impactful and memorable.

Upon arrival, I was briefed on the philosophy behind the program and the details of what makes it work. The National Guard Youth Challenge Academy is available to 16-18 year old high school drop-outs who apply on their own accord. They are in the program for 5 ½ months, during which time most receive their GED and significantly strengthen their character, life skills, and desire to succeed. Upon graduation, the cadets return home and meet with a pre-determined mentor each week for the next year. The graduation rate is over 95% and the success stories run the gamet of careers, including a medical surgeon who often returns as the graduation keynote speaker.
Colonel Frank Williams - He is truly amazing!
He has been with the program from the beginning.
They have graduated over 10,000 Cadets.

The program focuses on respect and self-discipline, and the fruits of such a curriculum were obvious. I was greeted with cadets standing at attention, responded to with ‘yes, ma’am’ at all times, and treated like a well-respected celebrity from the moment I landed to the moment I departed.

After the briefing, I joined the cadets for lunch.  Then I watched in awe as they performed a routine for me around the flag pole, demonstrating their unity and discipline.  This was followed by Peggy Still Johnson of the Peggy Still School of Music performing the Star Spangled Banner, and you could have heard a pin drop as each person in attendance stood at attention and listened with respect and admiration.  Knowing the brave decision that each of these cadets had made to be in this academy, it was one of the more emotional moments of hearing this song sung.  I joined with Peggy on this appearance as a way to support and advocate for MENC (Music Educators National Convention/National Association for Music Education). She spent much of her time at the event speaking with the staff and students about the importance of music in education and even passed out her business card to a few aspiring musical artists.

I was then given the honor of speaking to all 300 cadets.  I shared with them my father’s story of being raised as one of fourteen children in rural Kentucky with a father who only had a third grade education, yet my father’s valuing of education led him to receive his bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees in education and return to his hometown to be the superintendent of the same school district where his father had previously served as janitor.  I was able to reflect on my own life and talk about overcoming obstacles and getting back up again and trying one more time, even though every ounce of you is afraid you might have to experience the dreadful feeling of failure once again.  I tried to explain the euphoric feeling of success after failure, and how confident I was that every single one of them was going to successfully complete this program – and I meant it. 

These young men and women are true heroes. They shared their stories with me of broken and abusive homes, alcoholism and drug use, parenthood at an early age, and more, yet they have each decided to make a change and are dedicate to achieving it. All of us can learn from their courage and optimism.
Star Cadets shared their life stories with us.
They are truly heroes.

After a tour of the facilities and the opportunity to again speak to the women of the academy, I boarded the Black Hawk for the return trip to Atlanta. I have been digesting my experience for days, my eagerness to return, do more to help, and learn more from the cadets increasing incessantly.  Thank you, National Guard, for allowing me this blessing of an opportunity.

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