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Smith: Another chance for youth in distress

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Hoosier Youth Challenge Academy (HYCA) is nestled in the burg of Knightstown, Indiana. HYCA’s sprawling campus emerges suddenly along a winding road that is dotted with rustic homes and the occasional small business. Flora, fauna and fungi are plentiful there; cell phone service is not. The area is a reified Norman Rockwell painting. Yet, the calm and bucolic setting belies HYCA’s solemn purpose: the rehabilitation of so-called “at-risk” youth.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the academy, along with other community leaders, at the invitation of Lee White. Mr. White is a local entrepreneur and philanthropist who cares deeply about young people. He believes that HYCA could be a game changer for youth — especially those of color — who are on the verge of falling through the many holes in our porous social safety net.

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Indiana National Guard Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger established the academy in 2007. It is part of the National Youth Challenge Program that the National Guard established in 1993. HYCA is one of 40 such academies that are scattered throughout the nation. It provides military-style training to youth (ages 16-18) who have yet to graduate from high school. The participants, who are referred to as “cadets,” must not have a felony record or pending court case, be drug-free and be unemployed or underemployed. HYCA readily accepts students who have been expelled from school; those who act in very violent ways are usually sent home.

The program is free to the cadets and their parents but requires a nearly 18-month commitment that includes an in-depth screening process, two-week acclimation phase and five-month residential phase. There is also a yearlong post-residential mentorship phase to help the cadets achieve their life and career goals. The program is a non-compulsory alternative to the criminal law system; the students must volunteer to be in it.

The academy pairs cadets with mentors who attempt to inculcate them with the importance of self-discipline, education, life coping skills and a specific set of values. Cadets are trained in health and hygiene, job skills, physical fitness, responsible citizenship and service to community. They also have access to postsecondary educational counseling and may progress toward earning their high school diploma. New Castle High School is a key education partner.

Cadets may also opt for a high school equivalency diploma through HYCA’s partnership with Adult Basic Education, which is offered to Indiana residents. This tuition-free program is for those who wish to pursue education at a college, trade or technical school, or military environment. They may test for their HSE diploma while in the program and receive additional assistance from their mentor, who may help them with creating a Post Resident Action Plan. Speaking of which, mentoring is a core strategy of the program. Cadets are matched with qualified adult mentors by the 13th week of the program.

Given that the academy is technically a military installation, ultimate responsibility for administering it falls under the purview of Maj. Gen. R. Dale Lyles. Lyles is the 59th adjutant general of Indiana’s National Guard. Despite this fact, graduates of the program are not required to serve in the armed forces after they graduate, though a high percentage express interest in doing so.

The program’s tagline is, “We Support Second Chances.” HYCA actuates this message in an economically efficient and societally effective way. It costs just $8,000 to place a young person in this program — a pittance compared to uber expensive private military academies. Not surprisingly, private programs tend not to feature a great deal of racial or socioeconomic diversity. Additionally, from a fiscal and moral standpoint, the criminal law system spends $64,000 — per year — to incarcerate just one young person. The benefit of placing youth on a path to success via HYCA? Incalculable.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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