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NEWS | June 19, 2012

Arizona National Guard members teach power of choice to local middle schoolers

By Army Sgt. Lauren DeVita Arizona National Guard

PAYSON, Ariz. - Members of the Arizona National Guard's Civil Operations Team conducted a camp for 45 students from Marc T. Atkinson Middle School from the Phoenix School District, here recently.

The event, known as The Freedom Academy, hosts a variety of activities that stress drug awareness and positive life choices.

"This program is designed to help at-risk youth from neighborhoods known to have drugs and a high crime rate, take the kids from those areas and introduce them to a three-day resiliency camp," said Sgt. 1st Class Joe T. Ramirez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the team.

The camp events include archery, paintball, zip line, and downhill dirt boarding, among other activities. The physicality and adventurousness of these activities creates a positive environment for the students and maintains their constant attention and interest, said team members.

"It gives kids confidence and a teamwork mentality," said Army Staff Sgt. Michael Vigil, a member of the team. "We put them into situations like zip lines or something physically demanding where they do not think they can do it, and through the encouragement of their peers, they actually do it and feel good about themselves."

Building that confidence and instilling a positive sense of self is a way the team is trying to make a difference. Having worked with the school staff for more than eight years, the team's efforts have gone beyond the camp and into the classroom, with introductions to substance abuse awareness/prevention and teaching kids about individualism.

"A lot of these kids here have gone through our drug awareness programs at their school," Vigil said. "There are times when the schools will request for us to come out when there has been a drug incident, so we can come out and counsel the students and provide guidance on how to avoid those situations in the future."

The civil operations team pinpoints the types of crime and drug usage occurring within a community and focuses on those issues to educate youth on the negative effects those elements have on youth and their neighborhood.

"We teach them military techniques and principles, give them awareness of the drugs they have in their neighborhoods and how it negatively affects lives," Ramirez said. "They leave here with the outlook that they can make their own assessments on how to handle a situation."

And positive changes have been seen.

"I have seen positive changes and you can see the kids are excited when they see the Soldiers in uniform," said Kevin Rhoades, a social studies teacher at Atkinson Middle School. "Aside from that, the classroom presentations and interaction the team brings to these kids helps motivate kids to say "no" to drugs and get them to make better decisions with their lives."

The camp serves as a better chance to get the message across to students without peer interruptions or other distractions that may happen in school.

"Taking them out of their environment, they get away from their daily influences and distractions and are given the chance to reflect on what is being taught," Rhoades said. "I know a lot of these kids already and seeing them outside of their comfort zone and doing things they would probably never do in front of their 'normal' group of peers at school is one of the most impressive things."

An example of this is the zip line, a 100 yard stretch of cord suspended more than 50 feet in the air. Students must first climb a rope ladder and conquer fears of height and doing something physical in front of their peers in order to get up to the start point.

"I heard some of the kids say how they will not do it at all, and then they realize they can, and they do," Rhoades said. "The first kid up the line today was a sixth grader, and the older kids saw this as a challenge, but also gave the younger kids more respect in realizing anybody can lead by example."
That's also the focus and purpose behind the activity.

"The kids who come here are empowered to make choices, succeed under any circumstances, they just have to believe in themselves and realize that they have a choice," Ramirez said. "They do not need to allow their community's criminal activities dictate how their lives are run. What matters is our future generation takes something away from this and that we have helped put something better in that child's life."



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