VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Twice a year the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy graduates cadets from the five and a half month long residential portion of the program. But when the cadets take off their uniforms and return home, they don’t stop being cadets. Instead they transition to the 12-month, non-residential portion of the program. And just because they’re no longer watched by cadre in uniforms doesn’t mean the ChalleNGe program doesn’t have an eye on them.
When each cadet returns home, they do so under the watchful eye of a volunteer mentor who is responsible for helping cadets reach their post-residential education and employment goals. Their mission is to act as an advocate on the cadet’s behalf, help their cadet stay focused, and encourage him or her to make sound decisions.
“The cadets who have strong, grounded and committed mentors are our most successful cadets,” explained Dr. Delphoney Kargbo, the Commonwealth ChalleNGe mentor coordinator. “Their success or lack of success in the nonresidential phase is primarily based upon what the mentors do with the cadets to keep them focused and keep them moving ahead.”
Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, a 17-and-a-half-month program designed to promote academics, attention to detail, time management, and leadership, while promoting self-esteem, confidence and pride.
Although the mentors are a critical component of the ChalleNGe program, they’re also something staff members finds themselves struggling to find for each class. Cadets are supposed to come to the program with a mentor but that often doesn’t happen. In other cases, cadets arrive with mentors who are then eliminated during background checks. In some cases, the mentor just becomes less committed and engaged as time goes one.
“It’s essential for the mentors to be on board from day one, from residential to the post-residential phase,” said Deborah Thomas, a career counselor at ChalleNGe. “But we are struggling to keep them committed for 12 months.”
The five-and-a-half-month-long residential portion of the program at Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation focuses on preparing at-risk teens and high school dropouts for the General Educational Development test and future employment, military service or higher education opportunities.
During this residential phase, mentors are focused on building a rapport with the cadets through phone calls, letters and attendance at family mentor day. After week 13, mentors are asked to help cadets with things like filling out job applications and visiting Tidewater Community College.
In addition, mentors are asked to come in and speak to the cadets who’ve gotten in trouble.
“They respond better to the mentor than they do to the parent,” Kargbo explained. “The mentor can get a cadet to do something that a parent has been trying to do for years. We expect mentors to have that type of impact.”
After cadets complete the residential phase of training, they begin the 12-month, post-residential phase in which they work with their mentors and career counselors to ensure they are either placed in employment, continue their education or enter military service.
During this year-long period mentors are required to meet with the cadet in person at least four times and send monthly reports to ChalleNGe on what and how the cadet is doing. This is where the mentor is most vital.
“The mentor comes in and continues what the cadre already started- leadership, responsibility, citizenship, commitment, good worth ethic,” explained Larry Hicks, a retired Army master sergeant who previously served as a cadre at ChalleNGe and now serves as a mentor to cadets in the program. “Once they graduate from here, if there’s no one out there to guide them, to keep them on their same path, then they will get lost back to where they were.”
The total commitment for a mentor is the same as a cadet- 17 and a half months. While the time period may seem overwhelming, the amount of actual time required isn’t.
“We’re really just asking you to commit four hours a month to dedicate to keeping this cadet on track,” Kargbo said. “That’s a small drop in the bucket. We want to make sure we get the best mentors to help these cadets be productive citizens. It’s being a part of something bigger than yourself.”
“You can be the positive for somebody, to help them reach their goals they have in their minds,” Hicks said.
“It seems like it would be easy in the entire state of Virginia to get 250 committed citizens to give four hours of their time,” Kargbo said. “We all have busy lives and we all have other things going on. But if you volunteer, you’re going to have the privilege of getting one of our children to mentor.”
The next ChalleNGe class begins March 26. If you’d like to find out more information about becoming a mentor to a cadet, please visit Caution-http://www.vachallenge.org/mentors/ or contact the mentor coordinator at 757-491-5932 ext. 240.