NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A military style program is offering Arkansas teens, like Jayden Ford, a second chance. Ford was one of nearly 50 cadets enrolled in the Arkansas National Guard Youth Challenge Program.
“The first day was kind of shaky,” Ford, 17, said.
Teens between 16 and 18 years old from across the state can join the program for free to reclaim their lives. For six months they live in barracks on Camp Robinson, go through classes, physical fitness and job skills training. The ultimate goal is to either get a GED, return to high school, or get a job.
“This program becomes that parent that every child should have as a father and mother that’s going to lead and guide them to do those basic things in life to be successful and motivate them,” Youth Challenge Director Norvell Thomas said.
For cadets like Ford, the program has already changed his life.
“I was being more of a follower than I was a leader and coming here has helped me a lot,” Ford said.
After the initial six months, the program transitions to the 12-month post-residential phase. That’s when the cadets move back home and are paired up with mentors.
Christina Raatz is the mentor coordinator.
“The kids will call and say, ‘Hey Ms. Christy, guess what I’m doing now?’ And that makes this job so worth it,” Raatz said.
One of those success stories was 17-year-old Matthew Stephens.
“I had to either change my life or wreck my life,” Stephens said.
He graduated from the program earlier this year and is now working toward his goal of becoming a marine.
“If you’re trying to have a second chance, if you’re trying to rework your life, then I would strongly suggest it,” Stephens said.
“I definitely recommend it. If you are having problems or anything or if you are ever doubting yourself, come to Youth Challenge. It will change you,” Ford said.
Ford was recently voted class president by his cadet peers. After graduating from the program, he plans to go back to high school in his hometown of El Dorado and then either join the military or go to trade school.
The Arkansas National Guard Youth Challenge is currently enrolling for its next class which begins in January. It is accepting 16 to 18 year olds who live in Arkansas. The program is also recruiting adult mentors.