Program changes teens’ lives

Published 7:27 pm Saturday, December 26, 2009

Three area students were among a record class of 160 graduates from the Commonwealth ChalleNGe program last week.

The Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, Commonwealth ChalleNGe focuses on preparing at-risk teens and high school dropouts for the GED test and future employment, military or higher education opportunities.

“It helped me a lot,” said Dareious Cross, the only Suffolk graduate in this year’s class. “Before, I was struggling. I didn’t have no discipline in me.”

Timothy Hobbs Jr., who previously attended Franklin High School, and Casey B. Ratliff, who previously attended Southampton High School, also graduated last week.

“Dareious, Timothy and Casey came to us seeking a second chance, and we’ve provided them the guidance and direction they need to succeed in life,” said Col. Thomas M. Early, director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe. “I’m proud of them for taking the initiative to make a change for the better.”

Commonwealth ChalleNGe was founded in 1994, one year after the U.S. Congress authorized the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program.

The two-part program includes a 22-week residential phase, followed by a 12-month post-residential phase. During the residential portion, cadets, ages 16-19, participate in academic classes, community service and physical fitness testing, and they learn skills in life-coping, work, citizenship and leadership. Cadets must improve initial math and reading scores and identify goals — whether work, military service or continued education — for the post-residential phase in order to graduate.

In that second phase, cadets are paired with mentors who help them follow through with their life plans. The program is offered free of charge to participants, with funding coming from the state and the Department of Defense. The cost per student is about $14,000. The program was nearly cut from the state budget earlier this year, but was spared at the last minute.

For Cross, the program’s salvation may have been his own, as well.

“Commonwealth ChalleNGe really helps you out,” Cross said. “They made every second I was there harder.”

Cross said he was forced to face his fears by going down a 50-foot rappel tower.

“At regular school, they can’t make you do pushups, but (at ChalleNGe) there’s nothing you can do about it because you don’t want to get kicked out,” Cross said.

His mother, Alfreda Russell, noticed an immediate change the first time she visited her son at the program.

“Before, I had to keep telling him to do this, to pick up stuff,” Russell said. “I had to fuss at him constantly.”

After seeing the change in her son, Russell said she would recommend the program to any parent.

“Now I can see the change where he’s more responsible, he’s looking toward the future, he’s setting goals,” Russell said.

Cross hopes to take the GED test soon and enter the workforce.

“It’s an excellent program,” Russell said. “I didn’t think it was going to be like that, and it was that and more.”

For more information on Commonwealth ChalleNGe, visit www.ngycp.org/site/state/va.