Every year, Fort Stewart Youth Challenge Academy cadets travel to a locale in the region for the Youth Challenge Academy Invitational. The event, which pits cadets from different YCA programs in a variety of sports, drills and mental games, comes full circle as Fort Stewart hosts this year’s competition.
The fun will begin Dec. 3.
For Ernie Walthour Sr., the coach of the local YCA boys basketball team, the games are secondary.
“We’ve won five championships in the last nine years, but the most important thing is that this program continues to excel in getting these kids their GED,” he said. “Most of our players have already gotten their GED ahead of schedule.”
According to Lt. Beatrice Palmer, an operational officer with Fort Stewart’s YCA, the invitational started out as an 11-academy regional event but has since been reduced to a four-to-six-team competition because of budget cuts. YCAs are sponsored by National Guard units across the country.
“We have a series of sporting events, a drill team event, an academic event and chess teams competing against each other for four or five days,” Palmer said. “It’s a lot of fun and a lot of competition. We’ll award trophies, and it’s a chance to see who is on top and who is not.”
Palmer, who has been with the local organization for 15 years, said the invitational offers the cadets, who are all high school dropouts, another opportunity to excel in life. She said Fort Stewart’s YCA has the highest GED attainment average in the state.
“In general, what we do is we take these young kids from all over the state of Georgia and we give them back their motivation to do the right things and become productive citizens,” she said. “They come down here and they get their education, and they can go ahead to college.”
Contrary to popular belief, the students at the local YCA are not are from military families.
“We have a lot of rural and inner-city kids, you name it,” Palmer said “Anybody who has decided to change their life. This is strictly voluntary; none of these students are court-ordered (here).”
She said new cadets must go through a boot camp consisting of rigorous physical training and drills. The process weeds out those who aren’t truly committed.
One of Walthour’s players, Lamarquis Cooper, said the program and the chance to play organized basketball changed his life.
“I was not going to school beforehand,” he said. “I would still be in the street doing what I used to do if it were not for (the) Youth Challenge (Academy). It kept me out of trouble most of all and it allowed me to get back on track.”
The 18-year-old said he plans to join the Air Force and become an aviation engineer. Before he leaves the YCA, however, he would like a taste of basketball success. His team will open play against Fort Gordon.
“We started out playing really bad earlier in the season, but now things are coming together,” Cooper said. “I think we’ll do well at the tournament. We should have a championship team.”