ORANGE PARK, Fla. – On Dec. 17 at the Thrasher-Horne Center, 144 cadets of class 37 of the Florida Youth ChalleNGe Academy completed the first stage of their journey toward a successful future.
The Florida Youth ChalleNGe Academy (FLYCA) is a community program funded by the Florida National Guard that leads, trains and mentors 16- to 18-year old high school dropouts or those at risk of quitting school. The goal is to help them develop the skills to become productive members of society.
The graduation ceremony marked the completion of phase one, a rigorous five-and-a-half-month residential term that loosely mirrors military basic training.
Throughout this phase, cadets have the option to participate in credit recovery to return to high school, or they can work toward earning their Florida high school diploma through the GED testing service and even dual enroll in college courses. The path they choose makes the experience unique to each cadet.
For class valedictorian Michael Caldwell from Clearwater, the experience transformed his life.
“Before coming here I had a lot of anxiety but when I came into a structured, military environment, it kind of enabled me to relax. … I started to calm down more and I started to be able to just get on top of things, get what I needed to get done, done,” said Caldwell.
Michael joined as a sophomore on the verge of failing out of high school, but after completing the program, he now has a GED and is looking forward to attending community college – the next step in his pursuit of a career in mechanical engineering.
“[The program] really allowed for me to start over and excel,” said Michael. “Now, I can go to a community college and have my associate’s before my regular high school class graduates.”
During the ceremony U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. (Ret) James Ransom, FLYCA program director, read aloud from an email he received the night before. It came from the mother of a cadet who graduated earlier but who knew Cadet Caldwell and had witnessed his struggles at home and school. She was astonished and proud that Michael had gone from high school failure to valedictorian in such a short time.
“Yes, Cadet Caldwell’s journey is and has been different, but one of him seeing and knowing that it’s OK,” said Ransom. “We all make stupid choices and decisions that don’t always play out the way we think or want them to, but today will be his time to receive the fruits of his labor over the past five-and-a-half months as the valedictorian.”
Michael encouraged fellow graduates to continue forward and not revert back to old habits and versions of their former selves. He said the entire experience, while scary at times, was worth every moment.
“I remember wanting to show my family the change I had already experienced, and I remember the pride in my mom’s face when I saw her at family day and I knew I was on the right path,” said Michael. “I believe the time I spent here and my experiences have helped set me up for a successful future.”
After graduation, the cadets move on to phase two, a 12-month program in which they use their newly acquired skills and help from a community-based mentor to get jobs, further their education or join the military.
The FLYCA program began in 2001 under the direction of Maj. Gen. (Ret) Ronald Harrison, former adjutant general of Florida, and has graduated more than 4,800 teenagers.