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Georgia's Youth ChalleNGe program celebrates anniversary
In a room full of cadets, VIPs and military personnel, the YCA staff held a reunion to mark 25 years of changing lives and great success
cake cutting
From left: Gen. Jarrad, SFC Hershey, Rep. Al Williams, and longest serving staff members Ms. Valarie Barnett, and Dr. Hank. - photo by Lainey Standiford

Fort Stewart tends to hold many accolades— especially being the home of the 3rd Infantry Division. Yet, there’s more than meets the eye. Fort Stewart is also one of three homes to the National Guard’s Georgia Youth ChalleNGe Program, which works to turn around the lives of at-risk youth 16-18 years old, according to

The Fort Stewart Youth ChalleNGe Academy officially opened its doors in 1993, the website said. The YCA has three campuses in Georgia: Fort Stewart, Fort Gordon, and Milledgeville.

Current FSYCA director Roger Lotson said in 1993, the program helped an average of 300 youth. Currently, the program serves nearly 1,000 at-risk youth, he said.

On Oct. 5, FSYCA held a 25th reunion celebration, inviting former and current directors across three campuses to celebrate the milestone. Guests included: Milledgeville YCA Deputy Director Amber Kauffman; Former State YCP Director Col. (ret) Frank Williams; Former FSYCA Director Dr. Robert Hughes, The Adjutant General Gen. Joseph Jarrard, State Representative Al Williams, Hinesville Mayor Allen Brown, and other staff members. Each guest had the chance to say a few words about the YCP, and the impact on both the past and present.

The purpose of the ceremony, Kauffman said, was to commemorate the ribbon cutting ceremony that launched the Georgia Youth ChalleNGe program 25 years ago, and to recognize the accomplishments of the program through the years.

“What we’re here about today is to remember something that happened 25 years ago,” Col. Williams said. “Before you all were born. Bear with us as we greet each other, talk to each other, and reminisce because 25 years ago was nothing when you’re our age. We remember it like it was yesterday.”

They had no idea whether the program would work, Col. Williams continued. The National Guard and soldiers don’t run schools, but it happened anyway.

“At that ribbon cutting, none of us had any idea if this was going to work, especially that it was going to be here 25 years later.”

In that 25 years, across three campuses, nearly 16,000 cadets have graduated from the program, Lotson said.

Hughes spoke about his time as a director. He began as director when the YCP started at Fort Stewart. He said that FSYCA was the first in the country to call themselves an academy.

“If we’re a school, we’re going to call ourselves an academy,” Hughes said. “We were approved to be a part of the school lunch program. We gave our cadets ribbons, we gave them ranks… we were a place of many firsts.”

Private First Class Robin Ashmore and Jazmine Ogletree are two cadets who are currently halfway through the 22-week program. Both Ashmore and Ogletree hold positions on the FSYCA student council, and truly enjoy the academy and what it offers.

“I was a junior or sophomore in high school,” Ashmore said. “I was captain for ROTC. I was in the program my freshman, sophomore, junior year. This would be my senior year of high school. I was a captain, I was in charge of three platoons.” Ashmore joined this program ahead of potentially joining the military. His plans: to join the army in the 74th Ranger Regiment, following in his father’s footsteps.

“I might do a workforce type field, like construction or welding,” Ashmore continued. “It’s been a hobby and passion of mine.”

Ogletree is the secretary of student council, and said that she’s always participated in different programs.

“I got on student council because I like to be in things,” Ogletree said. “I just signed up for student council, and I had to show that I’m always keeping a good record to stay on council.” As secretary, Ogletree works to ensure everyone is accounted for, notes of the meetings are taken, and make sure everything remains in order.

When asked what their favorite parts were, both Ashmore and Ogletree had some interesting answers.

“I love being here,” Ogletree said. “I’m changed, I feel it. I have to be an example to the other girls, and I like being that example.”

“My favorite part would probably be the marching,” Ashmore said. “The cadence. Getting to come from the barracks, down the brick road, you’re marching, singing a cadence, everybody is standing tall and looking good and being a part of the academy. On family fun day, when we marched in, that was the highest I’ve seen everybody hold their heads. Everyone were holding their heads up.”

Looking forward, the success of the program is evident. According to RAND Corporation cost-Benefit analysis, every dollar expended on ChalleNGe yields $2.66 in benefits – a return on investment of 166 percent. This return is substantially higher than other rigorously evaluated social programs that target disadvantaged youth. Youth Challenge is unmatched in its effectiveness in helping youth prepare for the future, according to the website.

“We are very proud of this program in the state,” Jarrad said. “We can’t express enough what is done for this state and these cadets.”

“Youth Challenge has given you the opportunity to be successful after a bump in the road,” Representative Williams said. “Hang in there. Be tough. Make everyone proud of you. You have an opportunity, so don’t squander it.”

Under the guidance of directors and role models like Dr. Lotson and Activity Coordinator Virginia Thompson-Taylor, who has a special bond with most of the cadets—these young men and women could be destined for great things.

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