Accepting the Challenge 

Montana Youth Challenge looks back on a turbulent first year

Six months ago, Jeremiah McCabe was a high school dropout who spent his days “sleeping, watching TV and hanging with friends.” He had no job, no skills and no direction in life.

Today, McCabe says, “There aren’t enough hours in the day for all the things I want to do that I know I can do. My life has changed completely.”

And the change came when McCabe accepted a challenge: to be in the first class of the Montana Youth Challenge Program run by the Montana National Guard. He spent five months in the military-style education/motivation program at Western Montana College in Dillon. He emerged with a GED, college credit in two courses and a belief in his ability to take charge of his life and move on.

The decisions and the program were not easy. McCabe says he probably would not have started the program if he had realized how difficult it was. But once in it, he wasn’t about to quit.

“The instructors were with us in shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” McCabe says. “They were there to motivate us and help us realize our potential. If you fought the system, it was hard on you. If you worked with the system, you succeeded. When I went there, I was doing nothing and I had no place to go. Now I’m on my way anywhere I want to go.”

McCabe is looking for work and will enroll in a technical college this fall to earn a degree in computer animation and graphics, but the most important thing he says he learned in the Youth Challenge program was that he can succeed and that he is the only one responsible for his success or failure.

“There was no television, no music, very little entertainment of any kind,” he says. “We worked and studied and talked and that made all the difference. Most of us had not done any kind of serious self-analysis ever before.”

The enrollees were assigned to a dormitory at WMC. They all dressed alike and spent their 16-hour days in military-type training. At 5 a.m. they rolled out for an hour of physical training and they were on the go in groups and under supervision until lights out at 9 p.m. Every day included exercise, classes and community service work.

“It was pretty intense and it called for a lot of self-discipline,” McCabe says. “Some of the enrollees couldn’t cut it.”

Program Director Mike Royer, a retired Navy pilot, said no one was exactly sure how the first class would be received by the Dillon community. The Montana program is one of 27 such programs in the United States and is designed to give high school drop-outs another chance.

“The first class and the community came together in a way we never anticipated,” Royer says. “Community support was overwhelming as the program went along. On graduation day, the auditorium was filled to overflowing with community members who came to support these kids. It was wonderful.”

Part of that success is from the community service component of the program, both Royer and McCabe agree. The enrollees performed community service work every day from picking up trash to participating in a citywide earthquake disaster drill.

About 120 students reported to Fort Harrison for indoctrination last summer. After the two-week shakeout, 82 students went to Dillon. Of that number, 43 graduated. Royer is pleased with the numbers and counts the first class a success.

The program’s goal is to change the lives of these youths by helping them earn a high-school diploma and moving them toward a positive future—college, work, vocational training or the military. Eight of the first class joined different service branches after graduation.

Royer emphasized that the program is only for volunteers. Youth Challenge is focused on high-school dropouts, boys and girls, ages 16-18, who don’t have felony records. No one can be court-ordered to attend the program and enrollees may leave at any time. It takes desire and self-discipline to stay.

To help ensure continued success, each graduate is paired with a mentor who keeps in close contact with the enrollee on a weekly basis for a year after graduation. The idea is to reinforce the positive attitudes and discipline of the program and see the graduate into a better life.

The Youth Challenge program came under fire when it was approved by the 1999 Montana Legislature. The state National Guard waited until the last week of the session to ask for $1.6 million of the state’s tobacco settlement money to fund the program over the next two years. The federal government will contribute $3.7 million during the same period. That funding covers the salaries of 45 civilian instructors and support staff and includes a $500,000 annual fee to WMC for the dormitory and dining hall use.

The campus at WMC was chosen because it had a renovated dormitory and declining enrollment but the decision was hotly debated because Sen. Chuck Swysgood (R-Dillon) was the was the Senate Finance and Claims chairman and the chief supporter of the program.

According to Royer, more than 2,000 Montana high-school students drop out each year. The second class, which begins this week, has more than 200 prospective enrollees reporting to Fort Harrison. Royer expects about 130 of those people to begin the program at Dillon and he hopes for a high percentage to graduate next spring.

“We’re meeting the goals and we’ve been surveyed by national auditors who found we’re running one of the best of these programs in the nation,” Royer says. “We’re filling a need.”

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