Youth Challenge Academy graduates new class

Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 12/13/17

ORANGE PARK – Twenty-two weeks ago, Tiffany Colón had no intentions of graduating from high school.

Rather than paying attention to what the teacher was saying, Colón was using class time to …

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Youth Challenge Academy graduates new class


ORANGE PARK – Twenty-two weeks ago, Tiffany Colón had no intentions of graduating from high school.

Rather than paying attention to what the teacher was saying, Colón was using class time to sleep. Rather than asking a question about something she didn’t understand, she would just give up, as in her mind, it wasn’t worth it. She had no appreciation for how hard her teachers worked to keep her engaged, and more importantly, keep her in school, she said.

Because her father’s habit of working late, Colón often found herself playing parent for her siblings at home in Clay County. This further detracted Colón’s mind from school and instead of doing her homework, she was taking care of her brothers and sisters. No matter how hard her father or her teachers pushed her, Colón could not bring herself to care about school.

Colón was given one last option by her father five and half months ago. That option was the Florida Youth ChalleNGe Academy at Camp Blanding.

In 1991, the Joint Armed Service Committee directed the National Guard to develop a plan to provide education and self-discipline to youth using methods found commonly used in core military training. Two years later, this plan came into fruition and was officially named the ChalleNGe Program. (The NG is capitalized as a reminder of National Guard). Now, more than 20 years later, this program has had 121,000 students graduate across the nation, with the majority of these graduates receiving a high school diploma or GED.

Colón’s morning routine drastically changed when she entered the Florida Youth ChalleNGe Academy. Instead of sleeping past the hours that high school starts, Colón was required to wake up at 4 a.m.

“It was really tough at first,” Colón said. “I was determined, though.”

Two weeks into the program, the academy members were given more time to sleep, having to wake up later in the morning at 5 a.m. instead.

Throughout the program, Colón found herself not only enduring physical trials such as obstacle courses and wall climbing, but also physical fitness regimens similar to those a private might endure in boot camp. Most surprising to Colón, though, was her ability to continue her education through the academy’s school credit recovery program.

“They taught us discipline, patience, appreciation, punctuality – if you were five minutes early, you were five minutes late,” Colón said, laughing. “All of these values we learned helped me finish my education.

“Now, I’m going to graduate with my class,” continued Colón, who graduated from the program Dec. 12 in a ceremony at the Thrasher Horne Center. “Before this, that never seemed possible.”

More than 1,000 guests and friends and families attended the ceremony and were all thrilled to see their cadet graduate from the academy.

After montages of academy videos played, ranging from their take on Stephen King’s It to “Camp Van Karaoke,” the orchestra pit, previously unseen, began rising from below. With it, nearly 20 academy cadets, stood still as statues. After a shout, not unlike what you might hear in the military, the cadets who have now risen to the seating level began a march. A perfectly-timed cadence between the stomps of the cadets and the shouts of the cadet leading them brought the audience to shouts and cheers.

Shortly after, each platoon of cadets made their way forward in a similar fashion, each sporting their own take on a catchy marching shout. Once seated, the many members of the military present in the audience were introduced. This included the members seated on stage, who each gave a small speech to the audience and cadets. It wasn’t until Brig. Gen. Trey Chauncey took the mic that the shouts, hoots and hollers reappeared.

“It is not because you always exceeded but rather, because those around you helping you, you learned how to not be afraid to fail,” said Chauncey, whose remarks were greeted with shouts of agreement.

“You learned to pick yourself up and do it again,” Chauncey said. Again, the cadets shouted.

“And again,” continued Chauncey. Once more, the cadets shouted.

“And if you failed again, you weren’t afraid to pick yourself up and do it again,” finished Chauncey. This time, he was met with a crescendo of shouts from every cadet in front of him.

As the ceremony proceeded, awards were given, including checks ranging from $100 to $300 for doing the most volunteer work, for having the best marks and more. Scholarships reaching $4000 were given to the cadets that proved they deserved it, and promised to use it moving forward in their college education, a path they might have otherwise never considered. Every cadet, all 158 of them, including Cadet Tiffany Colón, left this ceremony with a high school diploma signed and handed to them by the Clay County School Superintendent Addison Davis.


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