In many of the local parades held within Monroe County, a sharply dressed and well-disciplined group of teenagers can be seen, marching to the barking commands of their instructor. They are the cadets of the Challenge Academy, which is located out at Fort McCoy, at 749 East 12th Avenue. Last month, the Challenge Academy celebrated 25 years of operation, and they have no intention of slowing down the highly successful program, which was created by Congress and the Secretary of Defense, back in 1993, as a pilot program.
There are two Challenge Academy programs conducted at Fort McCoy each year, with a course duration of 5 and a half months, or 22 weeks, for both. The first course runs from mid-January to mid-June, with the 2nd running from Mid-July through mid-December. Both females and males can apply to the Challenge Academy, but there are rigid criterions for be accepted.
- They must be youth, between 16-years old18-years old.
- They must be one or more years behind in high school credits or expelled or dropped out.
- They must be a citizen or legal resident of the United States, and in the case of applying for Fort McCoy, they must also be a Wisconsin resident.
- They must not be currently on parole or probation for anything, other than juvenile status offenses.
- They must not have been charged or convicted of a felony.
- They must be drug free.
- The last, but perhaps most difficult criteria, is that of having to volunteer to be in the esteemed program.
On September 27th, the Herald spent three hours with three people, who all have important roles within the Challenge Academy organization: Director - Joni Mathews; Outreach & Public Relations Coordinator – Julee Katona; and Cadet – Maryjane Ann Fulton. The majority of the tour was spent getting inside information on the day-to-day activities of the Challenge Academy, from Cadet Fulton, while PR Coordinator Katona served as a guide, reminder and updater. But first, was an informative discussion with Director Mathews.
Joni Mathews has been the Director out at the Challenge Academy for a year and a half. She started out with why Congress initially started the program. “Congress saw the need to help teens who were experiencing difficulty completing traditional high school,” Mathews explained. “As a community-based initiative to lead, train, and mentor young men and women, they felt the National Guard would be the best organization to oversee this pilot program. Youth programs are consistent with the National Guard’s support role, their domestic support role, and state mission.
Director Mathews said that originally, there were seven states who participated in the pilot project, back in 1993. “Because of its success and need to help our youth, funds were appropriated, and many states began to partake in the program”, Mathews said. In 1998, it took the governor of the state, and the adjutant general to say that they wanted the program, in order for the program to exist. So, I want to thank former Governor Tommy Thompson and former Adjutant General James Blaney.” Blaney was a 1957 graduate of Kendall High School.
Since 1998, Mathews says that the Challenge Academy has graduated over 4,500 cadets, with many of them returning to say thank you. Director Mathews spoke to the Challenge Academy being a conduit for the cadets. “They have dreams and aspirations and goals,” Mathews explained. “We are here to help them get there; to realize that what they may have seen as an improbability, or even an impossibility, is not only attainable, but highly probable, as long as they stay dedicated and focused and apply themselves to their futures, as much as they have done here. We supply them with the confidence and the tools to do exactly that.”
Mathews explained in greater detail, what the Challenge Academy brings to the table for their cadets. “Being at the Challenge Academy opens their [cadets] eyes to so many more opportunities,” Mathews began. “We hold career fairs, where they learn about a variety of jobs, they may be interested in, or some they never knew existed. They are required to complete the ASVAB test, providing them with results of where their strengths are in different fields, giving them a better understanding of where their strengths lie.” The Academy allows them to focus on only themselves, not only improving excellence in academics, but learning life skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, service to community, leadership/followership, and physical fitness.
Mathews ended the interview by telling the Herald that the cadets at the Challenge Academy feel a sense of pride, as well as finding their inner courage to do different things. “Our motto [at the Challenge Academy] is ‘Courage to Change’. It takes courage to even come here, and I applaud the teenagers, to leave their home and come to an environment that is totally foreign to them. Living with 30 other people in the barracks; getting up at 5:20 in the morning; going all day long until 9 at night. They do not have their phones, TVs, and are away from any social media, or any other addictive or negative influences — they have none of that.”
Director Mathews continued, “They have to commit within themselves, to be here. They cannot be court ordered or forced to be here. For those that graduate, they found that courage to change; they stuck it out. They do things here that they never dreamed they could ever have the ability to do, like rappel down a 55-foot tall tower, participate in a 10-mile ruck march, and go on 5-mile runs.
PR Coordinator Julee Katona
After the interview with Director Mathews, Outreach & Public Relations Coordinator, Julee Katona, took charge of the tour, filling the mini-time gaps between interviews with more valuable, in-depth information. Katona explained to the Herald that mentors are involved with the program, and that the mentors are chosen by the cadets. The mentors come in at the halfway mark of the residential phase and are a critical aspect for of the program, working with their cadet to make sure that they stay the course of what they have learned in the program once they leave Fort McCoy. “The mentor is somebody who can relate to them and can support them while they are here, at the academy, and after they leave the academy,” Katona pointed out.
Prior to the cadets graduating, they work on their Post-Residential Action Plan (P-RAP) phase. This is for when they return to their communities to either return to high school; pursue higher education; find a job; join the military or continue volunteering. Mentors help the cadets with self-governance, once they leave.
The Strength of Cadet Maryjane Ann Fulton
After Julee Katona’s quick tour and information, she radioed for the chosen cadet to come to the same building as the Herald. Minutes later, a young female cadet walked into the room, with her well-pressed cover (military cap) resting on her forearm, which was at a 90- degree angle, as if on display in a museum. Her name is Maryjane Ann Fulton, and she hails from Sparta, Wisconsin.
Every response from Fulton ended with ‘Sir’. At the time of the interview, Fulton was at the 10-week mark in the Challenge Academy program. When the cadets first arrive, they go through a two-week orientation period, allowing them to adjust to the physical, mental, and social discipline they will need to embrace, in order to complete the 22-week course.
In this timeframe, the academy focuses on teamwork, close quarter drill, code of conduct, leadership and followership skills, and physical fitness. It is also in this phase, where the cadets relinquish their personal items, get haircuts, and receive their uniforms — putting them all on a level playing field.
When pressed by the Herald on what it felt like during her first two weeks, Fulton responded, “In the beginning, it was really hard. I saw other people going home and I briefly thought, ‘Everyone else is going home, can I?’ But I chose to stay.” That brought up an interesting point, the fact that any of the cadets can leave whenever they want, although they will talk with their parents, instructors and fellow cadets before they do. Director Mathews had stated that most cadets that leave, will exit during the first two weeks.
Together We Stand
Fulton went on to explain how cadets keep each other motivated to stay and finish, taking a “We are all together” approach to the tenuous 22 weeks. “There were some girls who wanted to go home,” Fulton stated. “I told them to think about their future, and what it will hold for them if they leave, versus if they stay. We started off with a bad life and here [the Challenge Academy], we are trying to fix it.”
Maryjane Ann Fulton spoke to the extremely positive educational environment that the Challenge Academy provides. “Before I started here, I was homeschooled because actual school did not work for me. I am ADD, so having just 12 girls in a room is so much better, for me personally. Here, the teachers actually want you to improve and get better. They really pay attention to us, as individuals. If we are not doing well, they take us aside and ask what they can do to make things better, so that we may improve.” Fulton spoke to the power of positivity and the motivation that the cadets feel, when someone cares so much about them, and that person truly wants them to succeed. “Before being here, I just went with the flow. I never really thought about my future. Now I have a clearer understanding about myself and my life, and I can see my future unfolding in front of me.”
I want to thank the Challenge Academy for inviting me to visit their home turf. I spent three hours out there, interviewing and getting a full-fledged tour, from top to bottom. Thank you so much Julee Katona, Outreach & Public Relations Coordinator. She met me before my feet hit the ground out of my vehicle. She was, and continues to be, extremely helpful and knowledgeable. She is a professional, through and through, and has a strong understanding of every aspect of the program.
Thank you, Director Joni Mathews, for such insight into the program’s beginnings. You had me at “I flew Black Hawk helicopters.” Mathews spoke to the graduation and the emotions that swirl around, with the parents and family shouting and cheering as their child, brother or sister, marches in proudly, having completed the residential phase of the program. “That type of emotion that I feel that everyone feels, during that graduation, is what I feel everyday I interact with the cadets. I get to watch them grow and progress, and see that lightbulb come on. I feel so grateful and blessed to work here.”
Seeing the strength and pride contained within Maryjane Ann Fulton was an absolute pleasure. Being a former Marine, I have an eye for leaders, and Maryjane is most certainly that. She barely made the age cut, as she is still 16, and that fact blew me away. Her potential reaches into the Universe, and her goal is for all of the cadets to succeed and flourish. I will make a strong effort to be at their graduation ceremony, in December.
For more information, you can visit the Challenge Academy website, at https://challengeacademy.org or you can reach the organization at email@example.com By phone they can be reached at (608) 269-9000 or (866) 968-8422.
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