FORT McCOY, Wis. – “I now see myself successful, instead of a failure.”
That is how Cadet Chloe Halbrooks of Walworth described the impact the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy has made on her life.
Halbrooks was among 71 cadets who graduated from the Challenge Academy’s 22-week residential phase Dec. 22 at the program’s Fort McCoy campus.
Challenge Academy uses a structured, military-style environment and state-certified teachers and counselors to reshape the lives of at-risk youth ages 16 to 18 by developing academic abilities, character, self-confidence and discipline.
“My life looked bad,” said Cadet Alyssa Carlin of Green Bay. “I was going down the wrong path, and by coming here, I’ve learned that it’s OK to make mistakes — it’s how you pick yourself up that matters. Knowing that, I am able to move forward with my career, knowing that if I make a mistake, I will pick myself up without beating myself up.”
The Challenge Academy has two phases. The residential phase is followed by a 12-month action plan that includes such goals as graduating high school, getting a job, enrolling in college, moving into an apartment or enlisting in the military. During this phase, cadets work with mentors from their areas.
Cadet Lucille Godejohn of Menomonee Falls credited the post-residential action plan with setting her up for success after graduation.
“It makes me feel like we can be on track and have our life planned for when we graduate,” Godejohn said. “Challenge Academy gave me resources and skills I can use when I grow through life. I am now able to begin my nursing career and college because of Challenge. It has motivated me to become better and more successful.”
Cadet Angel Taylor of Bloomer said she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life before attending Challenge Academy.
“I was so behind in school and I didn’t know what to do — I was on a path of not being able to graduate high school,” Taylor said. She said the Challenge Academy inspired and motivated her.
“I want to go into the Navy and cook for a living,” she said. “I found my career. The Challenge Academy was my savior — it taught me how to succeed.”
Cadet Angela Phillippi of Delevan said Challenge Academy provided her with confidence and direction.
“Before coming to the Academy, I didn’t really care about how my future ended up,” she said. “I was OK with an easy job doing easy things and living cheaply. Now, I see myself going far. I know I have potential, and all I have to do now is take action.”
Other graduates also praised what Challenge Academy provided during the residential phase.
“The Challenge Academy gave me the greatest gift — a new beginning to make my life easier,” said Cadet Erykah Gustafson of Hustisford. “They picked me up, brushed me off and gave me a better understanding of what I can do to make my life better and smarter.”
Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, addressed the graduating cadets by opening with a traditional Ojibwe protocol greeting — in Ojibwe.
“Hello, greetings,” Mathews said, translating the greeting into English. “My Indian name is North Wind. I am Fish Clan. I am from the place of the Torch People, or Lac du Flambeau in French. I live in Sun Prairie today, and I am also known as General Mathews.”
Mathews said she began her speech in her native tongue to give the cadets a sense of where she came from — the Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa. She shared fond memories of her childhood, attending pow-wows and helping her father tap trees for maple syrup.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be commanding one of the most respected organizations in our nation as the first female to serve in my current role — and the first female Native American National Guard general officer,” Mathews said. “I was once your age, wondering what to do with my life, and I am here to tell you, you can do anything you put your mind to.”
Mathews spoke of being bullied in grade school for “not looking Native enough,” and then being bullied in high school for being Native American and hanging around with other Native Americans.
“Throughout my time growing up, and sometimes even in the military, I was met by doubters who didn’t believe I could do something because I was a female, or Native, or for any number of other reasons,” Mathews said. “But those doubters only motivated me to work harder and dream bigger.
“I’m telling you this because being bullied or discriminated against didn’t stop me from accomplishing my dreams,” Mathews continued, “and it doesn’t have to stop you from accomplishing yours.”
She was one of just a few women to attend flight school in the 1980s, which led her to join the Army Reserve Officer Training Class on campus. She became an aviation officer in the active-duty Army and flew helicopters in northern Iraq in the months following Desert Storm.