Voices of ChalleNGe
"I am where I am today because of Youth ChalleNGe”
On Wednesday, May 18, 2011, one of Charles Wilson’s dreams became a reality.
Cadet First Class Wilson walked across the stage at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy last week to receive his diploma and shook hands with the President of the United States.
Wilson grew up in Savannah, Ga., and by the time he got to high school, he started skipping classes, undermining authority and getting into trouble. By his junior year, he realized he needed to make some major changes in his life.
It was through a neighborhood friend that Wilson learned about Youth ChalleNGe and enrolled in the ChalleNGe Program at Ft. Gordon. It was there that he realized he was responsible for his own actions and success. Being away from his daily distractions, he was able to focus on improving himself and setting goals for his future.
“I am where I am today because of Youth ChalleNGe,” said Wilson, the week leading up to his graduation from the Coast Guard Academy.
Following Wilson’s graduation from ChalleNGe in 2001, he enlisted in the Air National Guard and started taking classes at Georgia Military College. While he was enlisted in the Air National Guard, he was exposed to missions that motivated him to apply to the Coast Guard Academy.
In May of 2006, Wilson got a call from the assistant director of admissions at the Coast Guard Academy who told him he had been accepted. The assistant director told Wilson he was an unconventional candidate, being a high school dropout and an applicant from a different branch of the service.
During the Coast Guard Academy Commencement, President Obama said, “Your nation has great expectations. Yes, the Coast Guard may be the smallest of our services, and you will be tasked with vast responsibilities -- protecting thousands of miles of coast, securing hundreds of ports, patrolling millions of miles of ocean. But I'm absolutely confident that you will meet these obligations."
The Foundation is absolutely confident the newly commissioned Ensign Charles Wilson will serve his nation honorably. We are proud of his success and look forward to hearing about his future endeavors.
Wilson is the second graduate of ChalleNGe to attend one of the nation’s service academies.
A Graduate’s Story: Derick Escobar
Deserted by his mother, 17-year-old Derick Escobar grew up in Highland, CA with his father and younger brother and sister. With only 45 high school credits to his name by the time he reached 11th grade, and with repeated run-ins with the law, Escobar was running out of opportunities.
Escobar acknowledges that his high school attendance counselor could have kicked him out of school. But she saw potential and instead suggested he turn to the ChalleNGe Program. After waiting one semester to meet the age requirement, Derick applied and was accepted. And what a difference it has made in his life.
According to Derick: “I got to meet new people. I learned about leadership by leading my platoon. Community service was something I really liked. My GPA went from a 0.0 to a 3.4 when I graduated in June of 2004. My mentor kept me motivated for the whole program and is a person who I can really count on. He is still there for me and always reminds me to stay focused on my goals. Currently I am attending Grizzly Technical Academy and learning about computers. I want to go to college and join the Reserves so I can get money for college and then become a pilot. Grizzly helped me see a future where before there was just a black hole! It was the best experience of my life.
A Mother’s Story: Sandra Salinas
Larry Rodriguez’ life before joining the Seaborne ChalleNGe Program had become a downward spiral, resulting in failure and constant worry for his mother, Sandra Salinas. Things started going wrong for Larry in his freshman year. Recalls Larry, “I wouldn’t listen to others. Nobody could tell me anything, I was so hardheaded. I would do what I wanted to do and nothing else. I didn't care that I was hurting the people I love. I was with the wrong people and into drugs, alcohol, fights, trouble with the law - just crazy."
By the middle of his sophomore year, Larry was about to get kicked out of school. His mother heard about ChalleNGe. Larry says, "I decided to enroll in Seaborne because I knew I was headed in the wrong direction and was scared. I wanted help!"
Larry admits, "ChalleNGe was tough, real tough. Sometimes I wanted to leave. I missed my family and the loss of freedom. The hardest time was on breaks. But I was tired of being in trouble all the time and I wanted to do the right thing.
A Mentor’s Story: Danny Castillo
Danny Castillo has been telling kids about the great work of the Grizzly Youth Academy for years and decided to volunteer as a mentor. After mentoring five young men, he reminisces on the impact they have made on his life.
"At graduation, all the families would be waiting with renewed hope for their son's futures. Laughing and crying, you could see they were ready to face life's challenges together. Four out of five of these young men came from broken homes. For the first time, you could see they had some stability in their lives. I had the opportunity to assist these young men in finding jobs, or help with their life goals for years to come.
The one young man that stands out in my mind is Edward. He was running from the school system. His mother and father divorced. Edward would stay with his dad until the school started calling for him, then he would stay with his mother until things cleared up. I met this young man while driving to a job-training event and asked him if he was looking for a job. He said no, that he was just bumming around riding his beach cruiser with no problems in the world. I invited him to meet with me to see a video about Grizzly Youth Academy. He said, "No problem, I don't have anything else to do. He seemed disinterested, but two weeks later I got a call from Edward wanting to fill out the application for Grizzly.
Edward graduated the program and received his GED. He thought he wanted to go into the Marine Corps but got a job at McDonalds and the Marine Corps dream faded. Even so, we kept meeting and I kept encouraging him to do something bigger with his life. Then one day Edward called me to say he had an interview to be a correctional officer and asked me to be a personal reference. I told him how proud I was of what he was doing. Edward is about 24 years old now and on his way. I know that I made a difference in his lfe because I let him know that I believed in him.
With all the wonderful outcomes for the young people at Grizzly Youth Academy, I knew I wanted to be more than a volunteer. I decided to apply to be a part of this life-changing program. The cadre is to be commended for their dedication and hard work and long hours of investing their lives into these youth. The results are worth it. All the elements in the program bring a well-balanced, stable environment for these kids. I am proud and fortunate to be a part of this great organization."
A Graduate Looks Back After Ten Yearts: Robert Parker
With no cares and no motivation, 18-year-old Robert Parker was a high school dropout. His daily routine consisted of waking up at noon and washing car windows for $4.25 an hour, followed by drinking and partying with his frineds until the wee hours of the morning. His parents worked in the casino industry and spent much of their time away from home. No parental figures were present to tell him otherwise.
Nearly 10 years later, this same man has added a very prestigious prefix to his name: United States Air Force Staff Sergeant.
Currently a member of the Nevada International Guard, an Air Force Security Police Officer and, most recently, an Air Force Combat Arms and Weapons Instructor, Parker hardly believes it himself. The program that saved his life, the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, transformed his once troubled youth into a path of endless opportunities.
"I didn't want to be a loser, and I knew I needed to make a change when I dropped out of high school my junior year," said Parker, who, although he was from Nevada, attended the closest program site in Mesa, Ariz., at Williams Air Force Base. "The program was really strict and it was emotionally challenging being away from my family. The first two months were more difficult than basic training."
Parker says that while the Program's military-like structure and style of discipline was a drastic change from the careless lifestyle he once knew, he found the ambition he was searching for and guidance he craved.
"I gained motivation through physical training. We had personal instructors and were learning in smaller groups. On weekends, we did a lot of community service," he said. "I had more of a drive, a wanting to succeed and do better. I was getting a grasp of what I wanted to do and an idea of where and who I wanted to be."
After graduating with honors, Parker finally saw a light at the end of his tunnel. He was even awarded the Adjutant Generals Award. Now, with a five-year-old son and a flourishing military career, Parker looks forward to giving back to the Program that gave him so much.
"I plan to go back and visit, talk to the students, see how they are doingmaybe even leave an impression of my own on them," he says. "I want to tell them to stick with it and help them realize that if they can succeed with the Youth ChalleNGe, then they can pretty much succeed with anything in life."