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NEWS | June 28, 2024

Commonwealth ChalleNGe undergoes a number of changes, gears up for Class 61

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

Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy graduated Class 60 March 2, 2024, but instead of rolling right into Class 61, the program took a strategic pause, making cultural, physical and organizational changes. Now, after more than three months of training, seminars, brainstorming and implementing those changes, the staff is preparing for the 135 cadets of Class 61 to hit the ground July 16, 2024, at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach.

“This pause was everything we needed,” explained Jen Lanz, director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe. “The staff needed it mentally. We needed it facilities wise. We needed it training wise.

“But the break took a toll on us as people because we fill our buckets working with kids,” she said. “You can tell that the staff is desperately needing to work with other humans so we’re all ready to get back at it and welcome Class 61.”

Lanz explained the staff began digging in in mid-March when they began looking at the organization’s vision and mission.

“What are our goals? Why is the staff here? We broke down program goals and analyzed whether we are meeting those goals,” she explained. “I think the staff has appreciated knowing what their relationship with National Guard Bureau and the Virginia Department of Military Affairs is and where all these requirements come from.”

Each department has presented on what they do as a department and what their role is within the organization. Counselors have presented lessons on de-escalation strategies.

For three days in May, staff members conducted training with representatives from the team that has NGB’s contract for National Guard Youth Programs’ professional development.  

“We’re trying to have a better place for people to be and that requires buy in from the staff,” Lanz said. “I’m hoping with healthy and strong staff members we can take better care of the kids and support them.”

However one issue she is facing is finding those dedicated staff members.

“Staffing has been our number one issue,” she said. “Finding this niche of person who can relate with kids and coach and mentor is tough. The cadre position is a weird one. You can’t just pull someone right out of the school system and put them in a military structure. And you can’t just pull military folks and put them in social and emotional needs to work with teenagers.”

ChalleNGe is continuing to fill staff positions and Lanz explained two transitioning Soldiers are joining ChalleNGe through the DOD SkillBridge program. She is hoping more servicemembers take advantage of the program and join the ChalleNGe team.

SkillBridge provides an opportunity for service members to gain valuable civilian work experience through specific industry training, apprenticeships, or internships during the last 180 days of military service. DOD SkillBridge connects transitioning service members with industry partners in real-world job experiences.

“The more I talk about it, the more I find people who don’t know about it,” Lanz said. “But ChalleNGe can be a great SkillBridge spot for people transitioning from the military and hopefully more will realize that.”

In addition to recruiting new staff members, Lanz is searching for recruiters to continue to bring in cadets to the program.

“Two of my recruiters left. One retired and one left for law school,” she explained. “So we are looking for people who have experience with marketing plans, graphic design, public speaking.”

Lanz would like to find dedicated recruiters who can develop a new way to promote and get the word out about ChalleNGe.

“We want ChalleNGe to be the thing people refer to families in need,” she explained. “We want them to think positively about us and refer us. Unless you’ve had a hiccup along the way with a teen, you don’t know about these resources out there. Unless you can afford to send them to a military school, there is no other resource like this out there. We want people to know about it.”

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is one of the few ChalleNGe programs that provides an opportunity for cadets to achieve either high school credit recovery or a GED. Lanz explained that they also have more teachers than the minimum requirement for ChalleNGe programs.

“We also have a special educator, which is a strength. She ensures kids get accommodations both on their tests and in the classroom.”

Lanz explained that ChalleNGe has a 3-1 ratio of kids to staff members, something that can’t be found in the school system. Because of that ratio they have a team of personnel from all departments working with each other to watch, discipline and support cadets.

“We have career advisors on staff to work with kids and we have licensed counselors to provide intervention,” she explained. “Even the admissions team- they’re the ones who get to know the kids and families before they come in here. And the teachers. They’re all going to be on the board. I’m really excited to see what this crew can do with the kids.”

“I really want to highlight that they’re not just recovering academically or checking the box for education,” she said. “They’re going out into the world with some kind of goal and some kind of training and career exploration as well.”

Once the cadets of Class 61 arrive on campus they will find a new mentoring program in place. Virginia is one of 12 pilot programs using MentorPro. Under the previous model, ChalleNGe staff members would shadow, mentor and be a resource for 12 months after cadets left campus. This involved phone calls to the graduates and their families.

“But phone numbers change, kids go back to the same household where they were before,” she said. “Cadets who weren’t 16 couldn’t join the military for a year and a half later. So there was a gap there.”

Under the new model graduates will be shadowed for two years and much of that will be done using an app.

All Commonwealth ChalleNGe staff members will be listed on the app, as well as all the cadets.

“We will do verification for two years to find out where they’re living and where they’re working and pass on resources to them,” she explained. “The goal is, even if the kid doesn’t know what he wants to be when he leaves here, if a year later they decide they want to be a welder, our career advisors can get on MentorPro and ask who are welders and we can flood them with resources.”

“We’re hoping that app is a way they can keep in touch with us, it’ll be easier to verify where they are and we can truly give them community resources we need. I’m excited for the staff to be a part of it because that’s a way they can stay connected with the graduates.”

Commonwealth ChalleNGe is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and Lanz is hoping to host a celebration to commemorate that milestone with alumni as well as previous staff members and longtime supporters of the program.

“A lot of people have been supporting ChalleNGe for a long time,” she said. “It would be great to have previous employees, previous adjutants generals, legislative representatives and, of course, alumni. Building that alumni database is a goal of mine.”

“I am excited about culture change that Jen Lanz has instituted in the program,” said retired Col. Everton Nevers, Virginia Department of Military Affairs Chief Operating Officer. “I believe, based on her efforts, the ChalleNGe program will continue to grow into one the premier programs in the country. Good job, director!”

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