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NEWS | Sept. 6, 2023

Commonwealth ChalleNGe graduates 66 cadets from Class 59

By A.J. Coyne | Virginia National Guard Public Affairs

The Virginia Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy graduated 66 cadets from Class 59 Aug. 26, 2023, at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Retired Brig. Gen. Walt Mercer, the Department of Military Affairs Chief Operations Officer, joined retired Navy Capt. Mark Chicoine, the Commonwealth ChalleNGe director, in congratulating the cadets on their accomplishments.

“Seeing you perform today has been inspirational,” Chicoine said. “I’m confident that each one of you will find success as individuals.
“Class 59, go forth and go do great things,” he told them. 

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.

Daeja Mason, a graduate of Class 48, was the guest speaker.

“This is a full circle moment for me,” she explained. “I was just here five years ago. I would love to share with you how I went from a troubled teen to the woman you see me as today.”

Mason recalled how when she started high school she received good grades, played sports and stayed out of trouble.

“But around my junior year of high school there were a couple drastic events and changes that took place that not only took a toll on my personal life but also my academics,” she said. “I started skipping school, disrespecting my family, hanging out with the wrong crowd and overall just spiraled out of control.”

Her mom then sent her to Commonwealth ChalleNGe and Mason now describes it as one of the best things that ever happened to her. 

“For the next five and a half months I was challenged physically, emotionally and mentally,” she recalled. “I learned a lot about myself.”
She remembered how the cadets lifted each other up and encouraged each other to make it through.

“The fact that you kept your mind on completing this program shows that you can do anything when you have faith and put in the work,” Mason said. “You made a commitment to yourself and you followed through.

“Don’t take this accomplishment for granted,” she told the graduates. “I hope you keep the same discipline. This is only the beginning of the rest of your life. There will be a multitude of other challenges in your life. Just as you overcame these challenges you will overcome those ones. With hard work and consistency there is nothing you cannot do.”

ChalleNGe Cadets who participated in a culinary and hospitality course and a welding course at Tidewater Community College received certificates.

In addition, each cadet is required to earn 40 hours of community service before graduating. Local and regional organizations who offered opportunities for the cadets to volunteer were recognized, including the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Department, which played both basketball and football against ChalleNGe cadets.

Near the end of the ceremony, Chicoine presented several gifts to Mercer, who will be retiring later this year after nearly eight years as the director of DMA. Class 59 then performed a half right face and saluted Mercer, who returned their salute.

The Troutville-based 29th Infantry Division Band was on hand to provide music for the ceremony.

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