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Wisconsin National Guard program puts lives of 73 youths back on track

FORT MCCOY, Wis. (Wisconsin National Guard) -- The lives of 73 Wisconsin teenagers were put back on track, thanks to their commitment to improve themselves and a proven National Guard youth program.
Badger ChalleNGe cadets work on a walking trail near the Wisconsin Military Academy.
Badger ChalleNGe cadets work on a walking trail near the Wisconsin Military Academy. (Photo by Rob Schuette)

Badger ChalleNGe, a seven-year-old program operated by the Wisconsin National Guard, is designed for at-risk youths from 14 to 16 years old. Cadets began the six-week resident phase July 9 at Fort McCoy and graduated Aug. 20.

Each cadet is matched up with a hometown mentor who will stay in regular contact during the next year in order to keep the cadet on track.

"This program is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding for the cadets," said Badger ChalleNGe's director and program manager, Brig. Gen. Andrew M. Schuster, "but the challenging environment pays off by instilling life-changing values."

Cadets learned to get their life back in order by participating in a rigorous 17-hour-a-day schedule, which included physical training, classroom work and environmental work projects. All cadets must volunteer to attend the program.

"The National Guard is ideally suited to manage this worthwhile program," said Schuster. Schuster cited the Guard's nationwide experience with youth programs, the Guard's unique community ties and access to the military infrastructure that contributes to the program's success.

Since the first class in 1994, Badger ChalleNGe has graduated 378 young men and women and given them new direction in their lives. The program is state funded and invests about $4,500 for each cadet to improve life skills, education levels and long-term potential.

But what is most critical to Badger ChalleNGe's success is the cadets' commitment to complete the program and to make positive changes in their lives, Schuster said.

Cadet Stephanie Pawlitschek, 15, of Baldwin, Wis., who will be a sophomore in high school in the fall, said she heard about the program from a foster home friend. The program sounded like what she needed to get her life in order.

"I learned discipline - I never had it - and respect for others," Pawlitschek said. "I know I'll have more respect for teachers when I get back in school and show that respect instead of letting my mouth run off. I've learned to think before I act."

Josh Vuchetich, 15, of Park Falls, Wis., who also will be a sophomore in high school this fall, said his dad learned of the program through the Internet. The program sounded like what Josh Vuchetich needed to get his life back on track.

The program taught him discipline and helped him do better in class than he did at home. Vuchetich said the program has kept him away from things that were causing him problems and introduced him to great team leaders and staff.

"I didn't realize there were adults that cared this much about our future," Vuchetich said. "I didn't realize I could do this well. This will make it a lot easier to get through life."

Jessica Dutton, a former Badger ChalleNGe cadet, was one of the team leaders.

Badger ChalleNGe helped her overcome problems in school and bad habits. Dutton used the program as a springboard to go to college and is studying to be a teacher at Winona State University in Minnesota.

"I want to help people in this age group," Dutton said.

National Guard youth programs nationwide have graduated almost 25,000 students. About 70 percent of them eventually receive high school diplomas or GEDs, and more than 40 percent go on to college.

Schuster said the state program is in heavy demand with more than 400 inquiries received for the 80 slots open this year. More than 210 applications were completed and returned, and 157 candidates were interviewed before 80 cadets were chosen. In the future, he said he would like to find funding to handle 30 more youths.

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