News & Events


July 28, 2017 at 10:59 am | By ASHLEY FOX Lake County Leader

Cadet Rodriques

Coby Rodriques, 17, of Big Arm, holds one of his multiple awards he achieved during a 22-week program called Montana Youth Challenge Academy in June.

Coby Rodriques said looking back, he realizes he was his own fork in the road. His mentor, Larry Newell, corrected him, saying Rodriques was his own "dynamite in the road," as both started to laugh.

Rodriques, 17, of Big Arm, recently finished up part of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, where he lived at the University of Montana Western in Dillon for 22 weeks. Newell is his mentor as well as his neighbor. The two have known each other for about two years, after Newell and his family moved to the area from Los Angeles and Rodriques and his family, mom Sandra and sister Cely, 9, befriended the newcomers.

Newell said he took on the mentoring role because "you have to survive your teen years," which can be the hardest part of life. He added that he likes to think he didn’t make the same decisions as Rodriques, but he did because at that age, teens don’t always know how to manage their time.

MYCA is a "quazi-military program," Rodriques explained, that is funded by the National Guard. During the recent graduation ceremony, Newell said that he had to continually stand up as Rodriques received numerous awards for his hard work while at the program. "It’s good for anyone’s self esteem," Newell said of winning awards, as well as it is "a power builder" for mental health.

Joining MYCA in January at 16 years old, Rodriques said he graduated the program with 119 hours when only 40 were required.

Looking back on his actions prior to MYCA, Rodriques said he now has a different outlook on life. The program has helped him become a self-motivator after he realized he needs to keep himself busy to stay out of trouble. "I feel like a little bit too much freedom might go to my head," Rodriques said.

Ron Carroll, MYCA marketing coordinator, explained that the co-educational program is 17 months long with 100 beds. The first five of those months are residential. MYCA focuses on "providing support for youths, ages 16 to 18, primarily those who have left high school without graduating or those" who are struggling to graduate, Carroll said. "We bring them into a two-phase program," Carroll said, adding that the program is residential and post-residential. "This is not a punishment or anything like that." The program, he said, is an alternative to a routine school. A school approach doesn’t always work, so this is an opportunity for education.

As a mentor, Newell checked in with Rodriques four times each month. Each student identifies at least one mentor at the enrollment phase, Carroll said. Federally and state funded, MYCA is free for students, Carroll explained. During his time at UMW, Carroll said that Rodriques was an "overachiever" who was voted by his peers to represent them at week 14.

Going forward, Rodriques said he plans on joining the National Guard after high school graduation, so he can start his adult life "financially stable." "He’s got a great plan," Carroll said.

Newell said he is pleased with Rodriques’ goals and achievements. "His only problem is himself," he said. "Most kids have more legitimate things slowing them. Coby just really needed to wake up and realize that he’s smart enough" to do anything he wants, Newell added. Noting that Rodriques comes from a strong family, Newell said that Rodriques is strong, too.

Rodriques said that his mother is "one of my main foundations," and Newell said that Cely is "9 going on 16," and if he had to bet on her or a mountain lion, he’d bet on Cely. "It was an experience meeting so many different people," Rodriques said of MYCA. Over the course of the residential program, he said he noticed people change.

Peers who resisted authority in the beginning were the best listeners toward the end, he said. "It was definitely a paradigm shift," seeing how people started and finished the residential program. MYCA also helped change Rodriques with how he views others, Rodriques said.

"I used to see people pretty black and white," he said, but while living at UMW, he spent time with people he didn’t think he otherwise would. "I realized there’s nothing wrong with people. It’s the scenarios they’re dealt." He added that "it’s all about coping" with what life gives each person.

Newell said that through his mentorship, he’s learned a few things from Rodriques. He said he realized that Rodriques was interested in his daughter, and rather than scare the teen off with talk about guns, Rodriques jumped in the conversation with enthusiasm. "He asked, Can I shoot it? What else do you have?" Newell said, laughing. Rodriques laughed and said that ultimately, it worked out that the two spent more time together shooting the guns. "We’ve become more friends I think than me and his daughter have," Rodriques laughed.

Local Youth Excels at MYCA

Written By Tyler Manning 

Cadet Follet636407544423667864

      At first, Hezekiah Follet, 17, didn’t want to go to the Montana Youth Challenge Academy. He said that his primary concern was that he would be the only one from Wolf Point to go to the academy and that he wouldn’t know anyone there. A semester at the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillion can seem daunting at first to its’ high-school age group.

However, Follet’s mentor and teacher, Cookie Ragland, kept encouraging him to attend the academy by telling him more about it and what he would participate in while there. She convinced other students to go and Follet said that knowing other people that would be there helped encourage him to attend. Follet said that he initially wanted to go because he wanted to better himself and know what it feels like to complete something. He had no idea how much he would accomplish while he attended the academy.

Ron Carroll, Marketing Coordinator for the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, said that he likes to pick one students from each of Montana’s regions to try and highlight each semester. Carroll said that Follet was an easy choice from the spring 2017 semester because he performed exceptionally well while attending the academy. "He did a phenomenal job representing himself and his community," said Carroll.

Carroll said that while in attendance at the academy, Follet was the recipient of at least four distinct honors at the academy. The first was when Follet was granted permanent leadership about halfway through the semester. Carroll said that most cadets apply for this about halfway through the semester and a few are chosen for leadership positions. Follet was granted the position of platoon leader which put him in charge of his entire platoon of cadets. Carroll said that Follet was able to attain this position because he earned the respect of not only his fellow cadets but of the MYCA staff as well.

Follet also was chosen as Cadet of the Month while at the academy. Only four cadets are given this honor during the 22 week semester. Follet also attained the rank of senior cadet which is the highest rank that cadets can achieve while at MYCA. Finally, on his graduation day, Follet earned the challenge award which is based on all-around leadership during a cadet’s time at the academy. Follet was also a member of the MYCA’s color guard, meaning that he travelled multiple times to bear the colors and represent the academy.

Follet said that he believes the academy impacted him in a very positive way. First and foremost he said he feels like he completed something on his own for the first time in his life. He also said that he was a shy person when he first went to the academy and now he feels like a more outgoing person. "It made me a more strong and positive individual," said Follet. He also said one of his favorite things about being at the academy was being around a big group of people he knew and had things in common with.

Follet’s parents, Roger and Francine Bissonette, said that he is definitely a more independent and adult like individual after attending the academy. "He group up and is more respectful and adult like," said Francine Bissonette. Follet’s sibling, Roger Bissonette III, will be attending the academy next year after seeing the positive impact it had on his brother. Follet has also encouraged several other individuals he knows to attend the MYCA.

The Youth Challenge Academy program is sponsored by the United States National Guard. There are 35 academies in 27 states. Carroll said that Montana is really lucky to have an academy since many neighboring states do not. Usually the academies can be found on military bases but Montana is a special case being the only academy located on a college campus, University of Montana─Western.

Cookie Ragland, a Wolf Point High School teacher, is one of the mentors for this area and an important part of the MYCA program. Carroll said that the MYCA program greatly relies on its’ mentors as they are there to provide additional guidance and support to cadets. This guidance doesn’t even stop after a cadet’s graduation. Mentor’s maintain contact after graduation and help cadets execute their post-graduation plan that they form during the residential phase at MYCA. Carroll said that MYCA is always looking for mentors.

As far as Follet’s post-graduation plan goes; Follet said that he is going to finish his last year of high school next year and get his diploma. After that, though he is still mulling over his options, Follet said that he is interested in a military career, possibly in the United States Marine Corps.


Missoula teen graduates from Montana Youth Challenge Academy.


Cadet Centifanto











Lee Centifanto signs for clothing in supply on the University of Montana Western campus this fall during his time with the Montana Youth Challenge Academy.

Lee Centifanto is something of a perfectionist. The 16-year-old from Missoula found his place in the highly structured Montana Youth Challenge Academy. He graduated Dec. 17 after 22 weeks in the academic program, which is designed for at-risk teenagers. It was a perfect fit for Centifanto, who's set on becoming a Marine — following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. But that penchant for perfection meant if Centifanto faltered even slightly during those 22 weeks, he would become defeated.

The cadre instructors who helped him through those low moments are what he remembers. "I miss the CIs," he said. "They were like another parent to me at times. They would never hesitate to talk to you if you were having a rough time. The other cadets were really supportive, but sometimes you need to talk to someone with life experience. I would always get down on myself if I would fail, or not get a 100 eval." Sgt. Josh Devitis gave him a reality check: "We're all humans and we make mistakes. You have to accept that if you want to succeed." Sgt. Clifford Smith popped in to Centifanto's room, too, and found him beating himself up for a mistake. Smith talked him through it, telling him he wasn't a failure if he wasn't perfect.

Centifanto has been home-schooled most of his life. But that transition into a quasi-military life wasn't difficult, he said, because he likes structure. "The saying there is, 'Keep your mouth shut and do what you're told,'" he said. "My parents raised me that way, so authority over me is no problem. Other cadets struggled with that, so I was able to be a support system for them."

Montana Youth Challenge Academy is one of 35 youth challenge programs nationwide, and the only one on a college campus. MYCA is sponsored by the National Guard and the state of Montana. After the first 11 days at the National Guard armory in Dillon — the acclimation phase — cadets move into the residential phase, which means living on the University of Montana Western campus in Dillon. Centifanto's first day was July 19, and he was scared. "A lot of us were," he said. "We were doubting (and wondering) why did we come here. And the CIs were pretty intimidating."

After the acclimation phase, days full of marching, drill and learning the structure of the academy, they had a crossover ceremony during which they got to meet National Guard Major General Matthew Quinn, adjutant general for the state of Montana. They went from candidates to cadets.  And Centifanto quickly rose to the top. He was the first of four Cadets of the Month, which elevated him to senior cadet status. He was a member of the color guard, which took him to a governor's event in Helena. He earned a leadership position as platoon sergeant. Cadets need 40 hours of community service; Centifanto had more than 56. They follow a strict schedule, 5:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. every day.

The cadets take the TABE, Test of Adult Basic Education. Their results place them in one of five classes based on ability rather than age. At the end of the academy, they can test for the HiSET, a high school equivalency credential. After the school day, cadets head to physical training. Sgt. Devitis "was especially fond of PT," Centifanto said, grinning. That was good for Centifanto, who loves challenges, particularly physical ones. The word "challenge" was what caught his attention in the first place.

While living in Butte, he spotted a poster advertising the Montana Youth Challenge Academy. That word, and the image of cadets working an obstacle course, spurred him to go online and apply. Butte is also where Centifanto found his mentor. Each cadet has a mentor who works with them throughout their academy journey, and the year after. Mark Liesch, a pastor at the Centifantos' church in Butte, became his mentor. After PT, cadets clean their rooms and "get squared away." March to the dining facility for chow and then it's free time, time to talk with their CIs or more PT "if you're acting up. Centifanto was part of a new pilot program in which cadets who are vying for the military can earn 15 college credits during their time at the academy — a must if you have a GED or similar diploma.

"We're not a pseudo-recruitment tool for the military, but we show cadets opportunities for different avenues," said Ron Carroll, Montana Youth Challenge Academy marketing coordinator. "Traditional education doesn't work for everyone. This is more about pulling them with us than getting behind them and pushing."

Once cadets graduate, they work with their mentors in the year afterward. "I was impressed with how well-versed he was in all of his options," said Centifanto's mother, Marge. "He still has a lot of decisions to make, but it's a lot easier now." He thought about getting a welding degree from UM, but "I'm not feeling it." "I'm set up for the military," he said. So for now, he's looking for a job and preparing to get into the Marine Corps, something he can't do until he turns 17. "Anyone can find something there," Centifanto said of MYCA, whether it's structure, brotherhood, mentorship, education or life skills.


Bozeman teen gains more discipline, confidence after graduating from academy.

By Whitney Bermes Chronicle Staff Writer

Photo:Rachel Leathe/Chronicle

Cadet Dobler636407582205430739

Eric Dobler, 16, is an avid hockey player and a recent stand out graduate of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon.

Eric Dobler speaks with enthusiasm and passion about his 22 weeks at the Montana Youth Challenge Academy. "I think it’s probably the most rewarding thing you could ever do," said the 16-year-old Bozeman boy. The recent graduate thrived in the quasi-military environment the Montana Youth Challenge Academy offers its cadets on the campus of the University of Montana-Western in Dillon.× Dobler was one of 82 cadets who graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy last month.

"He’s an awesome young man," said Ron Carroll, marketing coordinator for Montana Youth Challenge Academy. "I think he was going to be successful even having not gone to Challenge. ...I’m so glad to hear we’ve given him additional skills and tools so now he can pass it on."

The all-encompassing program, which is in its 17th year, is for at-risk Montana youth and focuses on physical fitness, academics, leadership, community service, life-coping and job skills, and health, among other things. Montana’s program is one of 35 Youth Challenge programs nationwide and has a staff of more than 50 people.

The idea for Dobler to go came from his parents, he said, as they thought it would be good to get him in a different, more disciplined environment. Dobler found out in June he would be heading to Dillon for the 22-week program in July, something that he wasn’t quite looking forward to. "At first I didn’t really want to go," he said. "I thought it was going to be a lot worse than it actually was." Dobler, who plays hockey, skis and participated in tae kwon do, said the program helped him improve his physical fitness. "I think the physical fitness was a really good aspect," he said.

Another aspect the Montana Youth Challenge Academy prides itself on is the year-long "residential phase" following graduation. That includes each cadet having regular contact with a volunteer mentor they choose. "We rely on them for so much," Carroll said. "I consider them the backbone of our academy." For Dobler, that mentor is family friend Pippin Wallace. "We’re pretty close," Dobler said. "He’s a really positive person. I know he’s really good to talk to."

Now Dobler is back at Bozeman High School as a junior. After high school, he said he is thinking of enlisting in the military, something he hadn’t considered until it piqued his interest at the academy. And he also plans to head back to the next session of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy to speak to the future cadets about his experience and help them through their time in Dillon.

Dobler speaks excitedly about what he learned and experienced during his time. He has new-found confidence, discipline and better physical fitness. And he strives to be a good example for other kids. But Carroll said that’s a trait that has been inside of Dobler all along. "Whether you realize it or not, you’re a role model," Carroll told Dobler. "You were then, and you’re even more so now."


Rising up

Cadet Huggs

Local Montana Youth Challenge graduate excels in leadership role

By Levi C. Flinn Big Horn County News Crow Agency’s

Josiah Hugs was 17 when his daughter Ava was born. Knowing things were and would be tough on the path he had chosen, Hugs determined he needed to rise up and make a positive change for the sake of their lives.

"Growing up, it was kind of rough," Hugs said. "I grew up a little too fast and it didn’t hit me until this year, and I wanted to make a change in my life."

After a spark of motivation and outreach by recruiter Cole Mack and Hugs’ mother Sherri, he sealed his destiny by signing up for Class 35 of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy – just before the last possible signup day. If Hugs had not enlisted that day, he would have become ineligible by the beginning of the next cycle, as he would have surpassed the age limit.

"I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself before I went to this program," Hugs said. "I was scared to go out into public and do anything. Going to this program opened up my eyes and helped me see all the opportunities of what I can do in my life."

Hugs’ description of his academy experiences speaks of a life-saving adventure that redirected his focus to his family and their future.

"I’m very happy for the program and what it has done for his life," said Sherri Hugs. "He was headed on the road of destruction before he joined.

"It has done a lot for him, his attitude and just his total being," she continued. "I’m really thankful for this program and I recommend it to other youth at risk."

Hugs, 19, now dedicates his time to earning full custody of his 1-yearold daughter, giving thanks and credit to the Montana Youth Challenge Academy.

After 22 weeks of his personal life-changing escapade, the recent MYCA graduate works to influence local youth, and inspire them to join the program and "rise up" for themselves.

Excelling through challenges

"He did very, very well in the academy," said Marketing Coordinator Ron Carroll. "He won many accolades. I saw him enough to watch him flourish and thrive every week, ultimately landing a leadership position."

"I’ve seen 24 classes graduate and he was every bit of a leader that I’ve ever seen. He has a special way of inspiring his peers," Carroll continued. "I watched the way they would follow his lead and not because of the rank on his hat, but because they believed in him, that he knew the way to success."

Identifying initial slight weaknesses in leadership, followership and physical fitness, Hugs didn’t start the program with plans on taking on leadership roles and earning his highly regarded accolades.

"I didn’t really get along with too many people when I got there," Hugs said, "and I knew I had to be with them for a few months, so I had to work on that."

"[The academy] helped me out a lot," he continued. "When I got there, I weighed 176 pounds, when I left, I weighed 210 and I just gained a lot of muscle from being there."

Hugs even managed to double the required 40 hours of service to the community, logging more than 85 hours by the end of the program.

"To me, that says a lot about an individual," Carroll said. "He strived for excellence, and that’s a lot of what we hope, is that they learn to give back to their community."

Before joining the academy, Hugs identified himself as "always nervous" and afraid to be in front of a big crowd. According to Hugs, the academy made him step out of his comfort zone, which helped him gain confidence in himself.

After being pushed to work hard, Hugs joined the Color Guard, where he presented colors throughout Montana. These presentations included the renaming of the Great Falls Armory ceremony, where he met prominent Montana leaders and individuals, promoting his sense of self-empowerment.

Hugs also applied for permanent leadership, earning the rank of first sergeant.

"I started liking to get out of my comfort zone," Hugs said. "It made me feel good about myself and it made me feel more confident about everything I do now."

Hearing Hugs say that he used to be nervous in public brought out a short laugh from Carroll.

"He stood in front of his 82 peers, three times a day in formation as a company first sergeant, which is the highest enlisted rank," said Carroll. "He was also elected secretary of an organization where he talked in front of people including military personnel, the college chancellor and others, which is a remarkable change."

"I didn’t expect any of this at all, but I like to lead by example," Hugs said. "I was usually the quiet one out of my whole platoon, so being in these positions was unexpected."

Hugs graduated in December with Class 35 as a Senior Cadet, First Sergeant, a nominee for Cadet of the Month, and an Iron and National Cadet, awarded for physical fitness. Hugs also received awards for Outstanding Color Guard, JMG Speech, Company Leadership and Outstanding Achievement.

"It was really hard to let go of, it made me want to never give up again. I’m going to keep pushing forward," said Hugs. "It gave me a lot of confidence that I never really had in myself."

He now works toward a Navy career, considering options of a Navy Seabee or an Underwater Welder.

"If I could go to the academy again, I would," Hugs said. "I know how it feels when you want to give up and when you’re homesick. All we have to do is take it day-by-day and make it to that next haircut. It’s a mental challenge. Just remember why you came here – you came here because nothing at home will ever change, you came here to change yourself. You just have to keep pushing forward and do what you’re told. Get up 10 minutes early in the morning and tie your boots a little tighter."

"It’s not too late to make a change. I was probably one of the worst ones, but I was able to do it," he continued. "I made my mom proud and it would be nice to let everyone know that Montana Youth Challenge Academy is a life-changing experience. I wish everybody could go through that."


 Laurel girl completes Montana Youth Challenge Academy with nary a demerit


Cadet Cole

Mike Ferguson
Photo - LARRY MAYER Gazette Staff
Jan 3, 2017

Having just turned 17, Sam Cole of Laurel will begin studying psychology at the University of Montana Western next week. But just six months ago, college seemed about as achievable as interplanetary travel.

Cole, a straight-A student who dropped out of Laurel High School in February, was one of 82 cadets to graduate from Montana Youth Challenge Academy on Dec. 17. She earned several accolades during her five months at the Dillon-based academy, which employs a highly structured environment to help at-risk youth develop the skills and self-confidence they need to succeed. Among her honors: She was selected to carry the U.S. flag into graduation as a member of the color guard.“

I kept looking at all the families there thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’” she said Friday during an interview accompanied by her mother, Sheila Blanton-Cole, and her brother Ryder. “I had imagined graduating so many times, but when it finally came, I thought it was a dream. Now that I’m home I can’t believe I finished the program.”

But finish she did, and with a flurry that's almost unmatched, said Ron Carroll, Youth Challenge marketing coordinator.

Carroll said Cole is one of only two cadets he knows of who has completed 22 weeks at the academy without any infractions. To date, 2,621 cadets have graduated since the academy was established in 1999.

“That is almost unheard of,” Carroll said. “Every day she had to be center focused, locked on and respectful. If you have a bad day, you’ll get an infraction. It speaks volumes about her character" that she finished with none.

Blanton-Cole said that before her daughter entered the academy in July, she “had become a recluse,” spending all her time after school in her room alone in front of her computer screen, with no friends and little to say to family members.

“I wasn’t confident enough to do anything,” Sam Cole recalled of the months before she attended the Dillon-based program, which is on the campus of UM Western. “I was really depressed and I was isolated from everything, even my own family.”

“But after graduation, I didn’t want to leave. I was afraid of falling back,” she said with a smile that comes easily nowadays. “I made my mark there.”

To call life at the academy regimented is an understatement. Cole said she and her fellow cadets were awakened each morning at 5:30. They'd quickly put on their uniforms and set about cleaning the common areas before breakfast, which they ate in silence.

They’d do more cleaning and then crack open their textbooks. Following a silent lunch, they’d do more classroom work and then an hour of exercise just before dinner.

During down time, cadre instructors would “help us with what we need to work through mentally,” she said. Some evenings included a diversion, such as a movie, before lights out at 9:30 p.m.

“It’s a predictable schedule,” she said, crediting the structure and the mentoring she received as significant contributors to her academic outcomes — success on the HiSET (GED) test and a scholarship to help her study at UM Western.

“Today I don’t see myself as the same person” who entered the academy over the summer, Cole said.

“Her smile lights up the room and she exudes confidence,” Carroll said. “She smiles even during intense moments. I go around taking photos for our social media platforms, and in every photo of Cadet Cole there’s a smile on her face. I think that’s a mark of her character, one that will take her far in life. She has this internal mechanism to work well under pressure.”



A life-changing six months: Youth Challenge Academy helps Helena teen gain new confidence and maturity.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Montana Youth Challenge Cadet Alyssa Shortman

By Marga Lincoln - Independent Record

Autumn Shortman was 16 when she had her daughter Alyssa. She knew she didn’t want that kind of life for her daughter. So when Alyssa failed every subject in high school last year, refusing to do her school work and just wanting to hang out with friends, Autumn knew something dramatic needed to happen. And it did. Alyssa signed up for Montana Youth Challenge Academy -- after a lot of motherly persuasion.

She just graduated from the program for at-risk teens in December with honors and will take classes at Helena College in January. "I’ve already been accepted," she said. She plans to train in the Fire and Rescue program.

"It’s challenging," said Alyssa of MYCA. In fact, so much so, she wanted to bail during the first few days of the orientation and residential stay in Dillon and begged her mother to take her home. She’d call weeping and tell her mother is was too stressful and a mistake. That’s when the staff intervened and advised Autumn to just give Alyssa a little more time to adjust to the 22-week residential phase of the program. "She was very withdrawn and very uncomfortable before," said Autumn, who admires Alyssa's new level of confidence and maturity.

Alyssa had balked at being in high school and wasn’t comfortable at MYCA either. Adjustment didn’t come easy, Alyssa admitted. Almost halfway through the program she still wanted to make a dash for Helena. "Homesickness was really hard," said Alyssa, who is 16 and had never been away from her family. "Every time I called I cried about something that was horrible, that really wasn’t that horrible." But once Alyssa made it halfway through MYCA, she figured she might as well stay. "I stopped thinking about going home," she said. "I began thinking I might as well graduate."

The MYCA program, sponsored by Montana National Guard, is offered free to qualifying youths 16-18 years old. It focuses on core components of academic excellence, leadership/followership skills, citizenship, job skills, physical fitness, service to community, life coping skills and health and hygiene.

Alyssa’s mornings would typically involve cleaning, physical training and core classes, while the afternoon focus was college electives on the University of Montana-Dillon campus.

The program follows up the residential phase with a 12-month mentoring phase supporting students with their goals, whether it be school or a job. In its 16-year history, MYCA graduated 2,453 cadets.

At Dillon, Alyssa began to home in on passing her HISET (GED) test, which she accomplished with flying colors. "At the end of challenge, I didn’t want to leave," she said. "It was a really good experience, I don’t regret it." In fact, she recommended it to her friends, and her best friend will be in the program. "I gained a lot of confidence. I definitely know what I want," Alyssa said with some pride. "I have a plaque; I was on student council." Her mother admits, "I did a lot of crying when she called and told me these things. I had her when I was really, really young. We grew up together.

"She came out of the challenges in a very positive way," said Autumn. "She’s more comfortable and confident. "I’m a lot more confident about her going into adulthood," added Autumn. "Youth Challenge doesn’t work for every kid, but for her it was a life-saver. It’s been a life-changing six months. She was a role model for other kids. She is my hero."

There were 74 graduates in Class 33 of MYCA on Dec. 19. Other Helena graduates were Dylan Atwood, Brandon Parker, Mark Vanover, Kase King-Dietrich and Jerry Johnsey.


Shepherd student finds right fit at Montana Youth Challenge Academy

Article By Mike Kordenbrock - Billings Gazette

Photo: BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff

Montana Youth Challenge Academy graduate Aaron Keever plans to graduate from Shepherd High School and join the Army.

Despite a knack for woodwork and mechanics, Aaron Keever could never quite build an interest in academics. After days of sitting disinterested in class and struggling academically at Shepherd High School in front of half-filled notebooks, the now-18-year-old carpenter’s son came to a realization: What he was doing wasn’t working. "I just wasn’t motivated," Keever said. "I didn’t think anything would apply to the real world, all the stuff I was doing. So I was just like ‘Don’t really need it,’ (and) just kind of sat around."

Keever had heard from a friend about something that might help him develop the discipline to turn things around, the Montana Youth Challenge Academy.

"From being told by many people, teachers, parents, that what I was doing wasn’t right, (that) I’ve got to get my crap together and just finally realizing it," Keever decided to enroll in the academy, an alternative school for at-risk youth funded by the National Guard and the state of Montana.

Showing up in Dillon to the campus of the University of Montana Western for reception day, Keever recalled being directed to the big gym, known as The Bulldog, inside of which were tables with paperwork and trash bags. "Get a trash bag and throw all you stuff in, sign in," Keever said. "At the last table you get to say goodbye to your family." Cadets were then led to a field where they sorted through their trash bags, setting aside unapproved items.

For the first two weeks — the acclimation phase, which takes place at the National Guard Armory — cadets have no contact with their family. If they graduate the acclimation phase, they are rewarded with a five-minute phone call. As the months passed, phone call time increased, all the way up to 20 minutes, although letter-writing was unlimited. The academy consists of a five-month residential program and a 12-month post-residential program, and it runs two sessions every year, one starting in January and the other in July.

Keever and his fellow cadets woke up at 5:30 a.m. every day at the academy before beginning a day of physical training, coursework and occasional fieldwork, including a trip to the university's Birch Creek Center. Cadets are required to hold leadership positions for graduation, a process that involved applications and interviews.

Families visited once a month, and Keever, a fan of ice cream, was always quick to request something sweet from Dairy Queen. In the classroom, A’s and B’s were required, with punishment doled out in the form of study hall during the usually more fun nighttime activities.

Since Keever graduated Dec. 19 holding the academy's second-highest leadership position, the change in him has been noticeable. "He’s grown up a lot; he put on 15 pounds of muscle," Don Keever said. "He got in a lot better shape and his attitude. … They learn to respect themselves mainly and respect others. It’s very good that way. We were impressed with the whole deal."

Keever plans to finish up and graduate from Shepherd High, after which he will join the Army, something he’s always had an interest in doing because of the "discipline, the honor, the honor you get from serving your country and the benefits." Keever expects to report for basic training in June and hopes to become a mechanic and progress to a leadership role.

"Just something I’m good at, hands on," Keever said of his ability to build and fix things. "I’m not much into the bookwork."

Local teens excel at Youth Challenge Academy 


Quinten Gilbertson displays a moment of triumph during a climbing session at the Montana Youth Challenge Academy at the University of Montana-Western in Dillon. Gilbertson attained the top leadership position of company commander during his time at the academy. (Photos courtesy of Montana Youth Challenge Academy)

By Katie Fairbanks - Daily Interlake

Antonio ScottiBelli and Quinten Gilbertson were headed down similar paths before they enrolled in the Montana Youth Challenge Academy several months ago.

Antonio, 17, was skipping classes at Flathead High School, sneaking out of the house, "doing stupid stuff," he recalled. Quinten, also a Flathead High student and age 17, was making equally bad choices, plus he was struggling with depression. They and their parents knew something had to change, so last summer the two boys, along with several other area students, headed to the University of Montana-Western campus in Dillon where the Montana Youth Challenge Academy operates. Sponsored by the National Guard, the academy follows a military model that trains students in self-discipline and accountability. Both families hoped for the best. And when their sons emerged 22 weeks later, the leadership qualities and self-confidence they displayed were a marvel to their mothers, though it wasn’t a complete surprise.

"This program brought out what already was there," Angela ScottiBelli said about her son. "I was really impressed. "Billie Jo Gilbertson saw a level of self-confidence in her son that made her proud. She knew all along Quinten had the skills to succeed if he could just build up his confidence. Quinten’s grandmother, Donna Gilbertson, said the academy seemed to put things in perspective for her grandson. "Quinten saw others having bigger problems than him," she said.

Ron Carroll, marketing coordinator for the academy, said Antonio and Quinten were standouts among the 74 cadets who graduated from the academy on Dec. 19."These two young men were respected by their classmates and the staff," Carroll said. "It’s earned. Look for big things to come from these two young men."

The Montana Youth Challenge Academy, the only academy of 35 similar programs in 27 states that is housed on a college campus, is a two-phase, academic-based program for youths ages 16 to 18. The goal is to help them develop the academic and physical skills and abilities necessary to be successful, Carroll said.

During the residential phase, cadets focus on eight core components — physical fitness, academic excellence, leadership-followership, citizenship, community service, life-coping skills, job skills and health/hygiene. Following graduation, students begin a yearlong post-residential phase during which they maintain contact with volunteer mentors in their community .Life at the academy is no cake walk. The first 11 days, or the "acclimation phase," typically are the hardest. Students learn basic rules, regulations, expectations and complete placement tests. Contact with their families is limited.

Antonio said he had one really bad day and was on the verge of quitting, but he quickly reversed his thinking, remembering his ultimate goal. "I wanted to change," he said. His mother added, "He knew the pain [his behavior] was causing the family."

Both Antonio and Quinten rose to permanent leadership positions at the academy. Quinten became a platoon leader and the company commander, the top leadership position. Antonio was elected president, became a skilled public speaker and won a T-shirt design contest during his time at the academy.

"We give them the tools, but it’s their job to build the house," Carroll said. "The staff never gives up on these youths, even when they give up on themselves. "When we talk about ‘at risk’ kids, they are at risk of not completing their education," he said. "This is an alternative to traditional education."

Quinten said the learning environment at the academy, which offered more one-on-one instruction, greatly helped him. "The peer tutors give so much time," he said. "They give you all the tools you need. "Quinten was able to complete the certification to become a certified nurse’s aide while at the academy and he completed the HiSET testing for a high-school equivalency diploma. He will take classes at Flathead Valley Community College and wants to earn a degree in art. Quinten also is exploring a career as a lineman for a utility company. Antonio will be returning to Flathead High as a senior. He wants to be a game warden one day.


Montana Youth Challenge Academy graduate ready for future.

By Katie Fairbanks - Chronicle Staff Writer

Cassie Holt, 17, of Belgrade, recently graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge program in Dillon. Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/Chronicle

At 15 years old, Cassie Holt hated the idea of attending Montana’s highly structured youth academy.

"I did not like what I heard at all," she said.

Two years later, the 17-year-old’s attitude has completely changed. The Belgrade teen graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy’s 32nd class last weekend.

"It’s probably the best program I could’ve gone to," she said. "It helped me a lot."

The academy is a 17-month voluntary program that helps at-risk youth develop skills to be productive citizens. The academy has been open since 1999 and is located in Dillon on the University of Montana-Western campus.

The program has two sessions per year and admits up to 100 participants per session. Admissions coordinator Chelsey Hutchison met with Holt when she was 15 and has witnessed her progress ever since. "She’s one of our good ones," Hutchison said. "We’re proud of the accomplishments she’s made."

Holt earned many awards during her time at the academy. She won three physical fitness awards as well as the academy’s commandant award. Holt was also part of the academy’s color guard. Holt also held various leadership positions outside the regular requirements. She was Cadet of the Month in March, which led to the senior cadet position she held until graduation. Holt was also appointed warrants officer, a permanent leadership position. Holt said being a leader helped her progress.

"I’m not as shy," she said. "It taught me to put the foot down."

The program is split into a 22-week residential phase and a 12 month post-residential mentoring phase. Hutchison said the structure of the program quickly brings out change in the cadets.

"It’s a very short amount of time for them to accomplish what they do," said Hutchison. "It’s hard but it can be the most worthwhile thing many of them do for themselves. The residential phase includes an 11-day acclimation period, which Holt said was one of the toughest parts of the academy. "It’s hard to get up at 5:30 in the morning and be standing at attention," she said. "It’s hard living with 25 other girls." Despite the difficulties, the teen said she made wonderful friends at the academy.

"You make the best friendships because you do everything together," she said. The program focuses on the physical, educational and emotional needs of participants. It aims to help graduates do what they want with their futures, Hutchison said. Many participants return to high school after the program, others apply to college or enter the workforce. Holt plans to join Job Corps, a free education and technical skill program, to earn a high school diploma and a natural resources job skill.

"I like being in nature and being muddy and gross," she said. "It’s something I know will make me happy." Looking at her future beyond Job Corps, Holt said she has always wanted to be a nurse. "I always wanted to help others," she said, "and Montana Youth Challenge has helped me get further in my dream."

Before leaving for Job Corps, Holt plans to spend time in Belgrade hanging out with friends and helping her foster mom around the house.

"I have a plan, I have a future," she said. "I got what I wanted."

Program helps youth move life forward.

Jenn Rowell, jrowell@greatfallstribune

Cadet Jonathon Rabe receives an academic excellence ribbon at Youth ChalleNGe.Photo courtesy of Montana Youth ChalleNGe Academy

School just wasn't working for Jonathon Rabe. "I always had trouble in school," he said.

He struggled in the classroom with distractions and ADHD. During his junior year, he was hanging out with a tough crowd and was skipping class. "I was headed down a bad path," he said. That same year, his parents asked him if he wanted to participate in the Youth ChalleNGe Academy, a 22-week program through the Montana National Guard.

The program includes a 12-month post residency phase. The program is designed for at-risk youths ages 16 to 19 and aims to place them back in high school or on the path to getting their GED, going to college, getting a job or joining the military. Eligible students must be withdrawn or transfer from high school, be 16 to 18 when the program starts, be a U.S. citizen and Montana resident, pass a physical exam, be drug free and not be on probation or have any felony convictions.

Rabe's parents sat him down and asked if wanted to go. "I said no, I was going to try to change," he said. But, that didn't work out. By his senior year, "I thought I would fail out of high school," Rabe said.

What sold him on the program was a new aspect that would allow him to earn his high school diploma rather than a GED. The new program is HiSET Options, which runs through the school district. Schools have to sign up for the program through the Office of Public Instruction, which allows students to use their Youth ChalleNGe experience toward their diploma. So this summer, Rabe walked with his class and received a diploma from CMR High School. That diploma means he was able to enlist in the military, which is more difficult without a diploma. When he found out he'd be able to graduate and enlist, he said, "I was pretty ecstatic. That was huge, I was so excited."

Cadet Jonathon Rabe and other cadets during Youth ChalleNGe.

(Photo courtesy of Montana Youth ChalleNGe Academy)

Rabe said he works better under structure, and that's what made the Youth ChalleNGe program work for him. His grandmother and mentor, Nancy Rabe-McCabe, said the program takes away distractions, like cellphones and computers and puts the students in uniforms. "Everybody is on a level playing field," Rabe-McCabe said. It also teaches life skills, she said. Sharing a dorm with 30 other guys presents its own challenges. "You learn how to deal with people," Rabe said. "And how to keep calm in stressful situations."

During the program, cadets do community service programs in Dillon, where the academy is located. Rabe said he enjoyed actively doing projects for people in Dillon, and Rabe-McCabe said each session typically does more than 4,000 hours of community service.

Rabe usually did well on tests, but didn't get his homework done and didn't always show up to class.

At Youth ChalleNGe, everyone had study hall at the same time and operated on the same schedule. "With all the distractions taken out, it gives them nothing to do but their work," Rabe-McCabe said. "I think it clicked for him that this was what he needed to do."

All cadets choose a mentor during the program and Rabe said he chose his grandmother because, "My grandma has always been there for me. She's always been trying to help me make good choices." He lived with his grandmother for a few months one summer during a stressful time. "You get to the point of this much is not done, it's overwhelming," Rabe-McCabe said. He was falling behind in school and without Youth ChalleNGe, would have had to do a fifth year at CMR. "I guarantee I wouldn't have gone back for that," Rabe said.

If he'd stayed on that path, Rabe said, he'd probably still be working at Smith's, wouldn't have a diploma and would not have been able to enlist in the Navy. Last week, he signed his enlistment papers and ships off to training this fall at Great Lakes, Ill. He's been told he'll be assigned to submarines. He also got a job at ADF International for the summer.

He'll be working as a culinary specialist for the Navy and Rabe's dream is to go to culinary school.

After a Navy career, he wants to come back to Great Falls and open his own bar and grill style restaurant. "It's home, I like Great Falls," Rabe said. "You don't realize how much you miss home until you leave." Rabe comes from a military family and is hoping to retire from the Navy. "You can," Rabe-McCabe said. "There's nothing that can stop you." But there's more than family history that inspired him to join the military. "I want to give back to the veterans who helped us have our freedom. I want to be a part of that," he said.

Rabe would recommend the program to other students who struggle in school or want to get their life on track. He's also hoping to go back and speak to future classes of cadets about his experience. "It's amazing for me to do to help my life move forward," he said. "But, you have to want to go, want to change."

Want to learn more about Montana Youth ChalleNGe Academy? Go to

Getting back on track: Local youth self-enrolls in Youth Challenge Academy to clean up his act

ALEXANDER DEEDY Independent Record

Derek Walter (right) who self-enrolled and graduated from Montana Youth Challenge and his uncle and mentor Russ Ring, pose for a photograph recently. 2015-07-05T06:00:00ZGetting back on track: Local youth self-enrolls in Youth Challenge Academy to clean up his actALEXANDER DEEDY Independent RecordHelena Independent Record Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Sixteen-year-old Derek Walter decided that if he didn’t change his habits of drug abuse and disrespect for authority, he would never make anything of his life. Early this year he enrolled in the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, and five and a half months later Walter said he’s ready to get on track. "I wanted to learn honesty and integrity," he said. "I wanted to be able to respect the people I work with and just be honest." Walter, who is now 17, graduated from the academy on June 20 and is now enrolled in summer school to retake an English class he has already failed four times.

The academy is sponsored by the National Guard and the state of Montana, but is not a military program. In its 16 years of operation, MYCA has graduated about 2,300 young Montanans, according to the organization’s website.

Walter was born in Great Falls, but he moved to Seattle with his mom as a young child and spent 13 years growing up there. It was during that time that he started to use drugs and neglect school. Eventually Walter was expelled when he was caught carrying a knife at school. So he moved to Helena to live with his dad. It didn’t take long before he fell back into his old habits. He lied. He cheated. He stole money from his uncle. Walter’s dad tried grounding him and taking away his belongings, but Walter didn’t care. One night before the academy, he stole his dad’s truck with the intent of driving back to Seattle to meet up with old friends. He never made it that far, ending up at his girlfriend’s house instead. He hid out there for about an hour until her mom caught the two of them, and told Walter he needed to go home.

That’s when Walter realized he was headed for nothing good, so he approached his counselor at Helena High about the youth academy. Tim Hansen, the academy’s admissions counselor for the Helena area, met with Walter and figured he would be a good fit for the program. The academy wouldn’t be easy, he candidly told Walter.

Each year the academy graduates two classes that normally start with about 100 people. Students have the choice to quit, and the attrition rate typically runs between 25 and 30 percent. Hansen said the class Walter graduated with started at 106 students and finished with 81.

The first 10 days of the academy are akin to a boot camp. Students spend that time at the National Guard armory and are physically pushed to test individual limits. As Walter put it, the leaders break students down so that they can build them up again. Those first 10 days were the hardest for him, and Walter said quitting was on his mind. Then during the first family visit he found out some hard-hitting news: his girlfriend had cheated on him with his best friend. What kept him going? "Knowing that I can’t fall back into those old habits or I’m not going to make anything of my life. And knowing that family was behind me the whole way to push me through," Walter said. So he stayed.

During the 20 weeks following students’ time at the armory, they attend classes at the University of Montana Western in Dillon to make up high school credit or get started on college courses. Walter had been racking up a transcript peppered with Ds and Fs, but in the structured environment of the academy, Walter said he ended up with Bs and As. "That tells me he’s smart enough to apply himself," Russ Ring, Walter’s uncle and mentor, said. Now that Walter has graduated from the academy, he plans to finish his last year of high school and then enter the National Guard as a diesel mechanic. Ring is pushing him to stay focused in class and to follow through on his goals. "I’m pretty proud about it," Ring said about Walter’s self-enrollment into and graduation from MYCA. "I’ll be even more happy when I see results. Words are just words."

Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or



That program saved my life. If more people understood the idea of civic duty, and social responsibility that you learn there, our world would only improve. Integrity. That is the core of a person of true value. Doing the right thing, even when no one is holding you accountable. Do that in life and you will make mistakes, I promise. But you can stomach it much easier. That's reality. MYCP isn't for everybody, but for those that are willing to work very hard to change-jump in. Both feet. Be deliberate. Take it seriously. Best of luck Derek. Class 2 Grad.

Dillon Academy helps shape up Kalispell teen.

By HILARY MATHESON/Daily Inter LakeDaily Inter Lake |

Photo by Michelle Nelon

Caitlyn Hansen of Kalispell was intent to shape up when she enrolled in the Montana Youth Challenge Academy. "It was my choice because I needed self-discipline and self-respect," Hansen said The 17-year-old recently graduated with plans to study culinary arts at Flathead Valley Community College and dreams of owning a restaurant.

Attending college wasn’t necessarily the path she would have taken prior to attending the academy located in Dillon. "I was mainly doing bad things — skipping school, smoking cigarettes, sneaking out — pretty much a rebel child," Hansen said. "I really didn’t like life. I gave up on myself, I said ‘screw it.’"

The turning point came when she realized the impact her behavior had on her family, particularly her mother. "I wanted to make my mom happy and my family happy. Now, me and my mom are best friends," Hansen said with a smile. Hansen said she wants to get a tattoo symbolizing the renewed bond between mother and daughter.

The first 10 days of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, or the "acclimation phase," were the hardest, Hansen said. Students learn basic rules, regulations, expectations and complete placement tests."I was so nervous. You can’t talk to anyone," Hansen said.

The academy is sponsored by the National Guard and housed at the University of Montana Western in Dillon. While it’s not a formal boot camp, the academy follows a military model that trains students in self-discipline and accountability, according to Montana Youth Challenge Academy Admissions Counselor Clay Cantrell. Students make formations and march to class. The objective is to create an environment focused on academic excellence, leadership, citizenship, job skills, physical fitness, community service, life coping skills and health and hygiene.

Hansen said she pushed through five and a half months with the thought of making her family proud. In the process, she built up self-confidence. She served as a squad leader and a permanent supply sergeant. "Before I was never able to stand up for myself or for others. [Now] I have great confidence in myself," Hansen said. "I feel like a better person."

After completing weeks of highly structured and monitored routine, Hansen is acclimating to life outside the academy. For the next 12 months she will have a mentor will provide support and make sure she stays on track. "I came home in late May and went to see old teachers at Glacier [High School]," Hansen said. "They said I had really changed."

The Montana Youth Challenge Academy is free for participants and is open to teenagers 16 through 18. The academy offers HiSET testing and a high school credit recovery program.

Representatives from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy are hosting a community presentation at 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 1, at the Flathead Job Service, 427 First Ave. E. in Kalispell. The public is invited to attend and learn more about the opportunities that exist for youth and for youth mentoring at the academy.

For more information, call 1-877-367-6927.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at

Program helps Victor teen get back on track


Cadet Edward Moore graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, June 20, with a solid direction for his life. "It was the best thing I could have done," Moore said.

Cadet Edward Moore graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy recently with a solid direction for his life. The five and a half months he spent at the academy in Dillon provided the stamina, direction and self-confidence for Moore to plan success for his life. Before the academy, Moore,17, was a Victor student who had quit school.

"I dropped out of high school and I realized my life was going down the drain," said Moore. "I decided if I stayed, I wouldn’t be going anywhere and I wanted to go somewhere. My uncle works at a Youth Challenge in Southern California and my parents went to visit him, then researched Montana Youth Challenge, and before I could back out I signed. "It was the best thing I could have done."


Moore said the academy got him in shape and taught him discipline, respect and time management skills. "Now people look at me with ‘wow, this kid’s got a lot of potential’," said Moore. "The look I get from people is different – it’s a great feeling." "His confidence and outward look has matured," said MYCA admissions counselor Clay Cantrell. "When you look at him, you can tell he has that maturity – he has the ability to take life head on. It’s cool to see."

Moore said that before his time at MYCA he was anti-social, lacked confidence, didn’t do much and was out of shape. The academy follows a military model, but is not a formal boot camp. "The hardest thing was continuing when everything said I couldn’t," he said. "When my body ached from PT [Physical Training] and I knew the next day we had another PT session and knowing I’d have to get up at 5:30 and go to school. Just to keep pushing myself was probably the hardest." He lost 50 pounds and learned to run. "Now I can do a mile in seven minutes – that is a great confidence boost," he said.

Moore will be attending Hamilton High School for his junior and senior years. He is considering participating in cross country, wrestling and track for the Broncs. At MYCA, he had support from his family and friends in Victor and while in Dillon he made more encouraging friends and had a very positive counselor. "They really helped me out on the bad days when I was feeling homesick," he said. Academically, he earned credits and has a plan for his future. "I got three and a half credits, but it was mostly five days a week with a core class in the middle – physical fitness, personal hygiene, service to the community, life coping skills, responsible citizenship and academic excellence." Math is his favorite subject and he’s looking forward to being academically challenged at HHS. "This is coming from someone who dropped out and wasn’t planning to finish high school," said Cantrell. "Now, he’s transitioning in to high school and having the ability to finish and do what he wants to."

After his two years of high school, Moore would like to go into the Air Force and learn jet propulsion mechanics. "I’ve always been interested, but have never had the chance to get the hands-on," he said. "I hope to get some mechanics classes and do some job shadowing. I’m meeting with Mr. Kimzey, the principal, and getting everything set up for next year – his brother was a sergeant at the youth challenge for a while." Moore’s summer plans include attending Montana Conservation Corps for a month and then he will return to the Bitterroot Valley hoping to find employment for the school year. "I’m interested in a cooking job," he said. "I was a cook and got certified while at MYCA." The last week of MYCA focuses on vocations and cadets job-shadow and have hands-on opportunities. "Moore did Culinary Arts," said Cantrell. "He got to participate with UM Western chefs, got that certification and learned some tips and tricks about cooking."

Moore is a solid spokesman for MYCA and said it was a good use of his time. He recommends it to everyone who is struggling and plans to make a presentation about MYCA at Victor schools. He said he believes in it and knows friends who would benefit. "I wouldn’t have changed it for anything," he said. "I feel a lot better because I’m physically fit – now I can do a pushup. When I went there I had to do pushups on my knees. It’s just a big confidence boost." "It turned his life around," said Cantrell. "He has a great future ahead of him and he has the skills, abilities and confidence to stand on his own two feet and take life head-on and make tough decisions. Even if he stumbles he knows how to get back up and dust himself and move on from there."

For more information about the Montana Youth Challenge Academy visit their website at

Reach reporter Michelle McConnaha at 363-3300 or

Montana Youth Challenge Academy gives teens a 2nd chance at success.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

Daniel Rides Horse and Whitney Wegner, both of Billings, have recently graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon.

2015-06-29T06:00:00ZMontana youth academy gives teens a 2nd chance at successBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.comThe Billings Gazette

By Mike Ferguson

Daniel Rides Horse and Whitney Wegner, two of the most recent graduates of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon, said they credit their successful program completion to the discipline they learned and the care they received during their just-concluded five-month stints there.

"It was more structure than I had, more discipline," said Wegner, now a Billings West graduate who plans to enter the National Guard this summer and serve her country in military policing.

"I had started getting into trouble in school," said Rides Horse, who will return to West in August to complete his senior year. "I didn’t go to school much my freshman year, and I got more and more behind trying to make up those credits my sophomore and junior years. Rides Horse said a counselor told him he might not graduate and recommended the program. "I met with them, pondered it and decided to go there. They taught me how important it is to have an education and graduate if you want to get a better job."

Housed at the University of Montana Western campus since 1999, Montana Youth Challenge Academy assists at-risk Montana youth with developing the skills necessary to become productive citizens by focusing on students’ physical, emotional and educational needs in a highly structured, quasi-military environment.

Among the more than 80 graduates, Rides Horse was selected to deliver the commencement address Saturday. "It was a speech about saying goodbye, about going forward and not stopping" at graduation, he said. "I told them not to forget this place and the goals they accomplished." He delivered his speech with both polish and passion, said Shandel Weeks, an admissions counselor and recruiter at the academy. "The staff got all teared up, and he got a standing ovation," she said.

Following graduation, Wegner and her classmates walked down a hall past locker rooms, where they found staff ready to shake hands and offer hugs. "It was one of the worst and one of the best feelings I’ve ever had," she said. "They have been like parents to us."

Her grandparents, Marvin and Marianne Wegner of Billings, both said they’ve noticed the difference that all that discipline and hard work has helped bring about in Whitney. "She is an awesome young lady, and we are so proud of her," Marvin said. "Being there brought her a lot more structure and a lot less freedom. Everything just came together for her. She seems more relaxed, more free and easy." "She smiles more, and she has confidence in herself that she didn’t have before," Marianne said. "Now she knows she can do it."

Rides Horse said when he first arrived at the academy in January, "I was uneasy and scared, but I kept my mouth shut and listened." Don Barcus, the Native American home school coordinator at West, served as mentor during the latter part of Daniel’s time at the academy. "We have formed a good bond, and it started on the telephone," he said. "I had been in the service and I went to boot camp, so I told him, ‘This too will pass. It is doable.’ In the two months I’ve been with him, I’ve seen tremendous growth. He was a little meek, but now he is more courageous and authoritative. I think he’ll do fine, and I’m extremely proud of him."

"A lot of credit goes to the program," Barcus added. "They teach kids to see a future they couldn’t see before." "It is about telling yourself you can make it," Weeks said. "We lose kids every cycle, but they can always reapply. These two students did phenomenally well because they set goals and, through the program, they met them."

Enrollment for the coming five-month term beginning July 21 is now open.

Visit to learn more.

Columbia Falls Teen Completes Youth Challenge Academy

Dakota Krissie graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon on Dec. 20. He aims to enroll at Flathead Valley Community College next semester.

Columbia Falls Teen Completes Youth Challenge Academy

By HILARY MATHESON/The Daily Inter LakeDaily Inter Lake

Dakota Krissie of Columbia Falls has discovered his potential as a leader through the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon. "I never thought I had leadership parts in me at all," Krissie said. "I got there and I found out at the end I can be a good leader. And I was."

Before he attended the academy Krissie said he was failing high school. He had trouble staying awake in class, didn’t want to do homework and just didn’t see any relevance in attending school because he already had a job. He enrolled in the academy at his father’s behest.

After five and a half months, the 17-year-old graduated from the academy on Dec. 20 and hopes to enroll at Flathead Valley Community College next semester.

During his time at the academy Krissie lived on campus at the University of Montana Western, with a highly structured and monitored routine that focused on academic excellence, leadership, citizenship, job skills, physical fitness, community service, life coping skills and health and hygiene.

Krissie met the first 10 days — known as the "acclimation phase" — with some resistance. "I don’t think anyone liked that basically you’re put in the armory for 10 days; it’s like boot camp," he said. Montana Youth Challenge Academy Admissions Counselor Clay Cantrell said during the acclimation phase participants learn basic rules, regulations, expectations, and they complete tests for placement in classes. Cantrell clarified that the academy follows a military model, but is not a formal boot camp.

"We’re not training soldiers; we’re training students," Cantrell said. "We provide the basic structure, self-discipline and accountability. They line up in formations. They march to and from class. They have to hold their bedrooms to standard, make their bed a certain way."

Through the academy, Krissie was able to take the high school equivalency test HiSET (formerly GED) and a couple of college courses. Academy students also may participate in a high school credit recovery program through the academy.

As part of graduation requirements students must assume two leadership positions. Krissie eventually took up a permanent leadership position in his platoon during the last five weeks. To get a permanent leadership position, students must take a written test and get recommendations from other staff. They are essentially competing with other cadets. "It’s really hard to get it; you have to be top dog essentially," Cantrell said

Krissie learned not only that he could be a leader, but also that his squad’s performance was a reflection on him. He said some instances called for him to give instructions only, yet he learned there are times when a leader has to work alongside and help his squad. He said that is the difference between a boss and a leader.

"I had to help my squad. We had to clean our floors in the dorm room and I helped them every day," he said.

Krissie also was chosen to participate in the color guard and presented the colors for home football games at the university and at the Governor’s Office.

Now that Krissie has returned home to a less regimented schedule, he has been paired with a mentor who will provide guidance for the next 12 months as part of the program. Krissie said he hopes to enroll at FVCC.

"Now is the time to move out in the world again. Mentoring is crucial to keep track of them and make sure they are still thriving," Cantrell said, adding that cadets will need to adjust to not being under a close watch. "The mentor knows what he’s gone through and will help him continue to make strides and accomplish those stepping stones in life. "Krissie said he formed close friendships with others and these are the bonds that last a lifetime.

"These are the people that are in a sense your brothers and sisters for five and half months that are going to help you get through things, make sure you succeed and thrive," Cantrell said.

The academy is free to participants. Montana Youth Challenge Academy is funded 75 percent by the federal government and 25 percent through the state.

To date, Krissie is one of 2,298 cadets who have graduated from the academy, which was established in 1999.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at

Youth Academy Reforms Children

December 30, 2014

Courtesy photo

Cadet Caleb Denny prepares to rappel down a wall at the Montana Youth Academy in Dillon.

The Montana Youth Academy in Dillon offers opportunities for at-risk Montana children to help them through hard times and get their lives back in focus.

Caleb Denny, a 17-year-old Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation youth, just finished his stint at the academy and said that he was glad he went.

Before he went to the academy, he said, he was drinking, smoking, "carrying-on," going to jail and such. But, now things are different.

"It helped me control my anger and gave me self-discipline," Denny said. " ... It helped me get my life back on track."

He described his stay as "quasi-military" and said his life was regimented there. In the mornings, he woke up for physical training, then school, then more physical training, and so forth.

He is now back home in Rocky Boy, where he said life will be easier for him now that he has been through the Academy.

The academy was established in 1999 by the Montana National Guard and is a voluntary program. Students of the academy spend 22 weeks living in Dillon, where they continue their school studies and focus on building up life coping skills, physical fitness, leadership and other attributes.

After they leave the residence halls of the academy, they enter a 12-month post-residential phase, where they frequently meet with a mentor to report on how they are doing back in their home environment.

Tim Hansen, an admissions counselor at Montana Youth Academy, said while the youth are at the academy, they stay current with their school work. They cannot acquire their high school diploma through the program, but they can get their general education diploma if they choose to. If the youth decide to go back to their hometown high school to complete their education, they can take the credits they received at the Academy with this.

There is a large citizenship component of the kids' training at the school. Each student has to complete 40 hours of community-based service, and there is a strong emphasis on the external influences of high school students.

"You have to put forth effort to get through," Hansen said. "... All life is about decision making."

Since the academy was created, 2,022 cadets have graduated from the program.

Hansen said 95 kids are enrolled in the academy currently. The academy is an option for both boys and girls.

He added that the academy is free to the families of the youth. The state of Montana pays 75 percent of the cost and the National Guard pays the rest.

"The only cost to the families is the packing list," Hansen said, adding that they will supply even that if the families cannot. "We drop everyone down to the same status. Everyone has the same items."

For more information about the Montana Youth Academy, visit

Bitterroot students graduate from Montana Youth Challenge Academy


Donna Weidow, Shania Stevens, Jill Stevens and Paige Swenson help display the awards earned by Shania during her stay at the Montana Youth Challenge Academy.

Graduation was held for the 31st class of students from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon last week - 100 students started and 76 graduated - and two of those graduates were from the Bitterroot Valley.

Jacob Ewing and Shania Stevens both highly recommend participating in the program.

"It was difficult but well worth it," said Stevens. "It helped me realize what I can do on my own."

"It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done," said Ewing.

Tough is the whole idea behind the 5.5 month program similar to a military boot camp. Making it challenging and letting the students learn they are tough builds self-esteem and self-image.

The Montana Youth Challenge Academy is sponsored by the Montana National Guard and is free to youth.

According to their website, the program assists at-risk Montana youth in "developing skills and abilities necessary to become productive citizens through focusing upon the physical, emotional, and educational needs of the youth within a highly structured, quasi-military environment using proven techniques of discipline and motivation to assist youth in turning their lives around."

MYCA is for teens between 16 and 18 years who are a United States citizen and Montana resident. They must pass the physical exam and be drug free during the Academy. They must not be on probation at the time of enrollment (start day) and free of felony convictions.

The first 11 days, the Acclimation Phase, are held in the National Guard Armory in Dillon. Then the students move to the Residential Phase on the campus of University of Montana – Western. The final phase is the Post Residential (Mentoring) Phase that lasts a year.

Donna Weidow of Bitter Sweet Salon is Stevens’ mentor. Her son attended MCYA seven years ago. She said her son had a rough road while at the Academy, then finally something clicked, he got his GED, graduated as Most Improved Cadet but didn’t initially stay on course.

"They have learned that the Mentoring Program is what helps graduates continue to stay strong," said Weidow. "That’s why I decided to become a mentor. I talked to Jill (Shania’s Mom), my son talked to Shania about the program and encouraged her. Not that Shania was a bad kid – because there are tough kids that are sent there - but Shania was on a bumpy road and needed some good strong direction."

There is a Mentor Training Program for the volunteers willing to invest in the young adults.

"The training sessions taught me some life lessons – it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be," said Weidow. "I’m taking it personally and she’s stuck with another mom."

"I’m so happy that they gave us mentors," said Stevens. "It was so hard getting just one phone call a week from home and then I received mentor calls – I didn’t just have my mom to support me."

"At the Montana Youth Challenge Academy kids get a second chance," said Weidow. "At the graduation ceremony whenever the director [Jan Rouse] said how proud she was of these kids I was watching their faces and they had tears pouring down their faces. MYCA united these kids that all come from different worlds and created them as equals. Getting your first accomplishment at 17 is huge."

"I couldn’t agree more," said Stevens. "There were kids that had no choice, it was either the academy or going to jail. That wasn’t my road. I thought ‘well, just let me straighten up now and not cause any problems’.

"As soon as I got there I stayed on task and I ended up getting cadet of the month – which is a huge achievement. I was so proud. From there I took a left turn and started getting in to trouble and I ended up getting my band taken away and dropping back to the first phase. That’s when I realized I needed to straighten up."

Structured days included academics, community service, chores, and physical fitness training. The students earn two family days and five days at home with plenty to do during that time – community service, talking to other teens about the academy and planning schooling placement. Academic classes focus on reading comprehension, language usage, spelling, math computation and application and the goal is to pass the HiSet - formerly GED.

Stevens previously attended Hamilton High School, but will finish her schooling at Victor High School.

"I don’t want to get sucked back into what I was doing before," she said. "At the academy we are taught eight core components and one of them is life-coping skills. They taught us job skills, how to deal with family and friends, how to choose friends wisely, health and hygiene, academic excellence, physical fitness."

Students have to pass the Presidential Physical Fitness test and the Army Physical Training Test. Running, push-ups, pull-ups and sit ups are part of the workout that each student does after school each day.

"We basically try to improve as much as we can – and if you keep improving you get rewarded," said Stevens.

Jill Stevens is Shania’s mother. "It was hard – I had to give someone else control of my child," said Jill. "It took a lot for me. It was a lot of heartache but now I’m so proud. Her grades went way up and she’s much more confident and making good choices.’

Jacob Ewing and his mother, Wendy Ewing, recommend the experience. "I didn’t want to do it at first, but I wasn’t doing well in school and my mom said I was going," said Ewing. "He needed the discipline and everything that comes with the youth challenge academy," said Wendy. "People in the community had recommended it for kids that were looking for something and trying to find themselves."

Ewing said the best part was the friendships that he formed, the leadership training he received and the opportunities he was given. He was able to rappel off a four-story building, complete a 12-mile hike to Birch Creek and become certified as a Certified Nursing Assistant.

"Everything is timed there," Ewing said. "You get two minutes to shower, twenty minutes to eat and you can’t talk while you are eating. You learn to adapt to it all. The first thing they told us is that if you’re too tired to get out of bed, all you have to do is just stand up. It works."Every privilege is earned; nothing is given to you there. But they give so many opportunities."Ewing plans to study personal weight training in college and his uncle is his mentor.

"They make the graduation special," said Wendy. "They do cap and gown – it is a special event. I’m so proud.

"It is a great, great program. As a community I think we throw our kids away too easily. This is a real good option for that kid that just needs something – needs that self-confidence - needs that discipline, respect, leadership, and followership. It is hard - it is emotionally trying, physically trying. They break the kids down and then they rebuild them to be good citizens and have self-worth."

Ron Carroll is the Executive Administrative Assistant for Montana Youth Challenge Academy."Since the beginning [1999] we have had five youth from the Bitterroot Valley who graduated MYCA," said Carroll. "Cadets Stevens and Ewing did very well at MYCA and we are extremely proud of them.

"The Cadets earned individual accolades during their time at Youth Challenge. Cadet Shania Stevens: Cadet of the Month Award, Senior Cadet Award, President-Jobs for Montana Graduates (JMG Student Government), Presidential Physical Fitness Award Winner, Squad Leader-1st Platoon and Cadet Jacob Ewing: Earned HiSET (GED), Squad Leader-2nd Platoon."

The Montana Youth Challenge Academy has had 2,298 graduates since 1999.

For more information visit their website:

Seventy-six teenagers graduate from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy

ERIC KILLELEA Independent Record

Contributed photo

Katlyn Isbell recently graduated from the first phase of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy program.2014-12-26T00:00:00ZSeventy-six teenagers graduate from the Montana Youth Challenge AcademyERIC KILLELEA Independent RecordHelena Independent Record

For Matt Turnbow, the last straw came when he realized he had become depressed living in Helena.

The high school student had grown up here, and he had lost motivation in the classroom and felt uninspired about his future. "I just needed something. I was dying. I couldn’t stand it here any longer," said Turnbow, 16.

Which is why, one year ago, he decided to enroll in the Montana Youth Challenge Academy geared to help at-risk youth become productive citizens by focusing on physical, emotional and education needs. After hearing a classmate talk about the program, he filled out and submitted an application himself, a "little scared" about what to expect.

The same went for Katlyn Isbell, who thought she needed to stop using drugs and get physically fit. "I was disrespectful to my family," said Isbell, 17. "I had some friends go through the academy and they were 100 percent away from drugs. I looked up to them."

The academy for young men and women age 16-18, stumbling on the edge of trouble, is part of a 17-month program created in 1999. The Montana National Guard and the state of Montana sponsor the cost-free program.

A 10-day acclimation period encourages cadets to learn how to follow orders, march and adhere to the policy books. Cadets then transition into the 22-week residential phase on the campus of the University of Montana-Western in Dillon. Under a strict regimen, Turnbow and Isbell woke before dawn to endure tough discipline, physical training, education and community service.

"Lights out at 9:30 p.m.," Isbell said. "Then it starts over again."

Last Saturday, Turnbow and Isbell were among 76 of 95 teenagers who graduated from the first phase of the program. In completing the residential phase, Turnbow became a certified nursing assistant and now plans to work at a nursing home while attending Capital High School. Isbell, having entered the academy with two credits remaining in high school, earned her high school diploma and plans to start at the Butte Academy of Beauty Culture in January.

About 2,298 teenagers have graduated from the program so far. What’s impressive, said admissions counselor and former Marine Tim Hansen, is seeing the cadets complete the program voluntarily.

"It’s a volunteer academy to make people have more productive lives. I don’t think any program is a children’s miracle network, but we do a pretty good job," Hansen said. "These kids must have a desire to change. You’re there for yourself. You’re there to change your life."

After graduation, Turnbow and Isbell plan to complete the final part of the academy, the one-year residential "mentoring" phase when adult, volunteer mentors help them set up and follow through with personal and professional goals. The new graduates said they needed the discipline they got at the academy, and look forward to working with their mentors.

"At first I didn’t like the structure," Isbell said. "But now I wish we could go back. People care there. You always know what’s going to happen."

This past weekend, to her mother’s surprise, Isbell turned down a party.

"I hope she stays motivated and focused and keeps moving forward," said Isbell’s mother Bree Green. "She still has her days, but there’s respect and she’s happy. Being a parent, I don’t know where I’d be without it."

Looking forward, Turnbow thinks about what he’d say to his former self, the depressed teenager. Get motivated, he said, surround yourself with good people, and stay on track with fitness and education.

"I spent half a year at the academy and I don’t want it to go to waste," said Turnbow, smiling with hope for his future.

Belgrade teen graduates from Montana Youth Challenge Academy

Report ErroBelgrade teen graduates from Montana Youth Challenge Academy

Whitney Bermes, Chronicle Staff WriterThe Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Posted: Wednesday, December 24, 2014 6:30 pm

Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/Chronicle

Montana Youth Challenge Academy Graduate Dante Glushko

Dante Glushko, 16, of Belgrade, recently graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon.

There was only one thing 16-year-old Dante Glushko used to care about.


 "I hated everything, hated school," Glushko said.

After reaching a breaking point, Glushko said something had to give.

"It didn’t really hit me hard until I was alone on my birthday," he said.

After being convinced by family, Glushko joined the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, which helps youth who have been struggling in school to get back on the right track, focusing on physical, emotional and educational needs of the kids.

Glushko was one of 76 cadets, aged 16 to 18, to graduate earlier this month from the Montana Youth Academy’s 31st class. To date, 2,298 Montana youth have graduated from the 17-month program, which started in 1999 in Dillon.

When Glushko first arrived in Dillon, he questioned his decision.

"What did I get myself into?" he remembered thinking. "It’s just awkward for the first few days. You don’t know anyone."

The first 11 days, known as acclimation, are spent at the National Guard Armory in Dillon.

The cadets are then moved to the campus of University of Montana-Western where they spend the next 22 weeks in the residential phase.

During his time at the academy, Glushko was able to recover credits that will transfer to his record at Belgrade High School.

In addition to academics as well as daily physical training, Glushko and the other cadets performed 40 hours of service to the community. For Glushko, that included chopping wood for needy families, volunteering at the Gallatin Valley Food Bank and cleaning up rodeo grounds in Dillon.

During the final year of the program, called the post-residential phase, Glushko will be in regular contact with a mentor he picked himself, one he met in church.

"He’s someone I really look up to. He really does give me good advice," Glushko said.

In a letter Glushko wrote his parents when he first arrived at the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, he told them he feared he might hurt himself or hurt someone else – physically, mentally, emotionally.

"I’m scared of the man I might be," he said.

But he made an oath to his parents.

"I promised to be a man of integrity," he said.

And after five months, Glushko said he’s on the path to his goals.

"I’m very happy I did it," he said.

Glushko will return to Belgrade High School after the holidays. He then plans to enlist in the Navy in June.

Montana Youth Challenge Academy staff will be holding an informational session Jan. 8, at Career Transitions in Belgrade. It is free and open to the public.

The Montana Youth Challenge Academy is funded by federal and state governments and is cost-free for participants. There are two sessions each year.

To learn more about the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, visit

Senior High student benefits from time in Montana Youth Challenge Academy

Larry Mayer/Gazette Staff

By Mike Ferguson

Christian Rosco recently graduated form the Montana Youth Challenge Academy.

Jamie Kuck said she’s impressed with all the work her son, Christian Roscoe, put in during his recent 22-week stay at the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon — and with the person he’s become after graduating from the program this month.

"I am really proud of Christian for accomplishing this," she said Tuesday. "The end result has been a really good thing for him."

Roscoe, 17, will be a senior at Billings Senior High when he resumes his studies there on Jan. 20, 2015, and he’s set to graduate on time. That wasn’t the case when he entered MYCA over the summer.

"I was living with my dad, constantly getting into fights and clashing heads with him," Roscoe said. "One day I packed my bags and moved in with my grandparents and my mom. I started seeing a counselor, but that didn’t work."

After learning about the quasi-military MYCA at a job fair, he signed on the academy’s dotted line. It’s the kind of place where a staffer turns on the lights at 5:30 a.m. and cadets are busy with studies and activities throughout the day and into the evening.

Before his time at the academy, "there were nights I didn’t go to bed until 5:30," Roscoe said. "I was dead tired that first week. I was not in good physical shape."

Founded in 1999, MYCA is on the campus of University of Montana-Western and is sponsored by the Montana National Guard. Three-fourths of the academy’s funding comes from the federal government, with the remainder coming from state coffers.

Although it costs about $20,000 per cadet to complete the five-month course, participants pay almost nothing to attend — just enough to outfit themselves at the start. They’re paid $10 per week for personal supplies and take accounting courses to help them chart their personal finances.

To date, 2,298 cadets have graduated and, along the way, performed more than 120,000 hours working on community projects around the state.

Boys and girls 16-18 can participate. While at MYCA, cadets focus on eight core components: academics, leadership/followership, citizenship, job skills, physical fitness, service to community, life-coping skills and health/hygiene.

"You get a lot of discipline, and there’s strict punishment for anything bad," Roscoe said. "They set up the rules and they’re clear-cut."

Added Shandel Weeks, a recruiter at the academy and a former drill instructor there: "They are given a handbook with consequences." Other members of a cadet’s platoon work to "keep you in check," she said.

Having not been away from home much, Roscoe said he was unsure of what to expect at first. "I wasn’t too confident about it," he said. "My mom kind of enrolled me."

Kuck told it this way: "I said, ‘Here, sign this. Here is your duffel bag.’"

Roscoe said one of his favorite staffers was one who yelled the loudest: Sgt. Patrick Taylor, "a big guy, a good guy who could break people in half if he wanted to. If you messed up, he’d let you know. I never feared or respected anybody as much as him."

Roscoe’s family came for a visit in September, and Kuck recalls seeing big changes in her son.

"He wasn’t fighting, he wasn’t picking his nails. He seemed to be comfortable in his own skin, just real polite and comfortable."

In October, his family got to take him off campus, and over the Thanksgiving break, he stayed in Billings and helped out at a local food bank. "We even squeezed in his senior pictures," Kuck said.

Once they’ve graduated, MYCA graduates aren’t really done. The post-residential phase lasts for a year and involves checking in regularly with a mentor — in Roscoe’s case, it’s his uncle.

Two days after his anticipated graduation at Senior High, he’ll be on a plane to begin serving his country in the National Guard. About 12 percent of academy graduates choose a military career, Weeks said, and as a bonus they are given a boost at the start of their military career.

"He’ll start off as an E-2, instead of an E-1," the lowest enlisted rank in the military, she said. "We don’t push the military option. The kid is our consumer and our product, and it’s their choice to come to us, do their best and then decide what they want to do afterward."

"He has come into himself," Weeks said of Roscoe, one of 76 December graduates. "It is tough. Kids say that they wouldn’t do it again, that they don’t want to hear Sgt. Taylor bark at them again."

"This program works. There’s no doubt about it," she added. "It might not look appealing to kids, but it’s important for them to be able to say, ‘I have a future. I have a plan.’ It’s a program where kids earn a sense of pride and respect. And once they’ve earned some, they want even more."

Missoula teen's life changes after going to Montana Youth Challenge Academy

By Keila Szpaller

Sebastian Stoll, back in Missoula after graduating from the Montana Youth Challenge Adademy in Dillon, credits the program with giving him confidence and knowledge to succeed. Stoll now plans to attend the Trapper Creek Job Corps program near Darby.

A year ago, Sebastian Stoll wasn't good at making friends in school, and he used to be afraid of his stepmom.

"Anytime she got angry or barked at me, I would back away and run to my room," Stoll said.

Not anymore. This month, Stoll graduated from the Montana Youth Challenge Academy in Dillon, and he credits the Montana National Guard-sponsored program with giving him confidence and the knowledge that he can succeed.

Now, he takes criticism from Michele Stoll in stride, and he isn't afraid of reaching out to his peers.

"Now, I feel like I could just pretty much talk to anyone and get to know them," said Stoll, 18.

The turnaround took 5 1/2 months, a blowup with his family and personal grit. At first, the Missoula teen didn't want to go to the academy at all.


As he tells it, Stoll wasn't the type of kid who did drugs and ran off with his friends at night, but he wasn't a responsible or mature teen, either. He was selfish and he didn't mind his parents.

"I was kind of not really confident in myself, and I kind of always expected to fail," Stoll said.

His dad, Scott Stoll, brought up the quasi-military academy on the University of Montana-Western campus, and Sebastian warmed to the idea. He began thinking it over and sent off an application.

Then he went to live with an aunt in Mineral County, and she wasn't keen on the program at all. She told Stoll she knew another young man who had cried because he was so unhappy there, so Stoll figured he wouldn't like it, either.

Three months later, his dad came to pick him up, but Stoll refused to return home. After a blowup, the sheriff's office got involved, and a law enforcement officer told Stoll that unless he was emancipated, he needed to go with his father.

They drove home, an irritated Stoll stewing in the passenger seat.


At home in Missoula, Stoll's stepmom issued an ultimatum, he said: Either he go to the academy, or he and his father both move out.

Scott Stoll has a different version of events. Actually, he said, his wife insisted Sebastian attend, but she never made a demand.

Stoll's decision wasn't cut and dried, but he began mulling the idea of the academy all over again. He'd been accepted while he was at his aunt's house, and when he reviewed the packing list, he started liking the tone the school set.

It allowed 20 stamped envelopes – so Stoll knew he could stay in touch with loved ones.

It called for six pairs of T-shirts in limited colors and brands – so Stoll saw the teens in the program were equals.

He agreed to attend. His stepmom put his name on all his belongings, and on July 22, his dad drove him and his two traveling bags to Dillon.

That morning, his dad hugged him goodbye in a parting that was emotional for them both.

"I know my dad said to do your best while you're here," Stoll said.

Later the same day, he sat on his cot and wrote his dad a letter about the way the program had unfolded in those first hours. He didn't have much to report, but he had a sense his time would be spent well.

"I told him ... how I was starting to like it," he said.


During the first part of the program, the estimated 100 "at-risk" youths aren't allowed to talk with each other. This phase lasts 10 days.

Clay Cantrell, admissions counselor, said the quiet time is meant to set the stage for teaching accountability and discipline. Cantrell recruited Stoll into the academy and brought him to the Missoulian on Monday to tell his story.

"That's what we focus on, is discipline. Can you do something as small as not talking while you're eating for the self-discipline?" Cantrell said.

The program is strict, and cadets who rack up enough infractions get sent home. Stoll started most of his days at 5:30 a.m., and at first he feared he wouldn't do well because he wasn't good at marching.

"At first, it's hard to stay in step. You're trying to follow the pace of whoever is calling cadence," Stoll said.

After enough practice, the marching became second nature, and he saw himself excel in other areas. Stoll took to a class on leadership, sailed through math courses and got accepted into the color guard.

The resident phase of the program is just 5 1/2 months, but Cantrell said the lessons stick because the experience is focused and intense.

"You live it every single day, and you don't have the distractions of phones, TV, computer, things like that. So you learn quicker, faster, better," Cantrell said.

Soon, it was time to plan for graduation, and Stoll was going to put his heart into it.

"They want graduation done a certain way. You want to look good for your parents. 'Hey, I've made a change.' So it takes a lot of practice," he said.


That day, he put his navy blue gown over his battle dress uniform and he laced up his boots. He had gone through the eight components of the program: academic excellence, leadership and followership, responsible citizenship, job skills, physical fitness, service to community, life coping skills, and health and hygiene.

On the toughest days, he reminded himself of his father's parting words and encouragement. And on the day to celebrate, his father attended the ceremony.

"He said he was pretty proud of me for graduating. He was glad I made it through the program. I showed him my diploma, and he was pretty proud of that as well," Stoll said.

Now, he's home, and he'll soon head to a Job Corps center for further training. Before he goes, he'll volunteer at the YMCA to give back to his community, something he wouldn't have been doing before going to the academy, Cantrell said.

In this yearlong phase of the program, a mentor will check in with Stoll to make sure he has an ear and support, and the guide will report his progress to the academy.

The federal government pays for 75 percent of the program, and the state pays for 25 percent, so it's free for participants and their families.

To date, the academy has graduated 2,298 cadets since its inception in Montana in 1999, helping them develop "skills and abilities necessary to become productive citizens."

The program accepts teens ages 16 through 18.


At the Job Corps, Stoll plans to learn about being an electrician. He left the academy with goals and a sense of self, and an understanding of what it takes to be a leader.

"It actually takes a lot more than going up to someone and screaming at them. It takes, as being a leader, actually caring for your team as well," he said.

Sebastian Stoll graduated with no infractions.

To learn more about the program, visit The academy is also on Facebook at

Great Falls teen completes Youth ChalleNGe

Jenn Rowell, 5:43 p.m. MST December 20, 2014

Hunter Gervais at the Youth ChalleNGe Academy in Dillon.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Hunter Gervais of Great Falls graduated from the Youth ChalleNGe Academy, a Montana National Guard program in Dillon, on Saturday.

For the last 22 weeks, the 16-year-old has been turning his life around.

He was starting to fail out of high school and was looking at transferring to Paris Gibson Alternative High or dropping out altogether when his mom told him about Youth ChalleNGe.


The Youth ChalleNGe Academy is designed for at-risk youths ages 16 to 19 and aims to place them back in high school or on the path to getting their GED, going to college, getting a job or joining the military.

Eligible students must be withdrawn or transfer from high school, be 16 to 18 when the program starts, be a U.S. citizen and Montana resident, pass a physical exam, be drug free and not be on probation or have any felony convictions.


At first, Gervais wasn't interested in signing up for the program.

But then he decided it was his best option.

"If I could get a little bit of a boost in the right direction," he said, it would help him get back on track.

When he found out he could get his HiSET, which is similar to the GED, Gervais was sold on the program.

High school just didn't work for him, Gervais said.

"The only reason I really went to school was for my weight-lifting class," he said. "I didn't like my teachers. I always needed help but didn't want to ask for help. I wanted to do it on my own."


When he first started the program, "I was very frightened, for the whole acclimation period I was asking myself if this what I really wanted to get into."

But once he made it through the first phase, he started to really enjoy the program.

"I really, really wish I had more time here," he said by phone Friday.

The structured environment and lack of distractions helped him focus on the physical training as well as his academics.

He lost about 30 pounds during the 22 weeks, which he said was important to him.

Being away from home was tough at first, but Gervais said he adjusted.

Finishing the program makes him a better role model to his younger sister, 10, and brother, 8, he said.

"Before, I did not want them to become what I was," he said.


The program also pairs the cadets with mentors in their community.

Gervais chose his pastor, Bryon Gustafson, to be his mentor.

Though he'd known Gustafson well from church, the mentor relationship strengthened their bond, and Gervais said he plans to stick with the mentorship when he gets back to Great Falls this weekend.


When he gets home, Gervais will work at Howard's Pizza and then try to find another part-time job, he said.

When he turns 18, he wants to enlist in the Montana Air National Guard in Great Falls.

The Guard was always a thought in the back of his mind.

"I always wanted to do it, but didn't think I'd make it there," Gervais said.

Now that he's completed Youth ChalleNGe and reached the highest level for cadets, he believes he can do it.

Gervais said he'd recommend the program to other teens.

"They help with everything," he said. "The goal was for me to make my mom proud, to make my whole family proud. I've come out a whole different person."

Learn more

Interested in the Youth ChalleNGe Academy? Go to

MYC Academy Cadets March to Their Future

By 1st Lt. Ryan Finnegan

On Sept. 2, students in Dillon, Montana woke early in their dormitory at the University of Montana Western to begin the day's lessons. Instead of a short walk to nearby classrooms to learn, however, these students boarded busses that drove them out of town, where they began a hilly nine mile march to the Birch Creek outdoor Education Center in the Pioneer Mountains.

The students were cadets attending the 31st class of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy (MYCA), which is a very different kind of school than most are used to. The hike to Birch Creek marked a new phase of their five month program.

The Montana Youth Challenge Academy was founded in 1999 to provide at-risk youth in the state a chance to gain the values, life skills, education and self-discipline necessary to succeed as adults. The program targets 16 to 18 year olds who are drug free and not in trouble with the law, but have dropped out of school or are in danger of dropping out. Montana's program is one of 35 across the nation, and housed on the campus of the University of Montana Western.

"The Montana Youth Challenge Academy is the best program we can provide to the people of Montana," said Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, the Adjutant General for the State of Montana. "it compares very well to other programs across the nation, which is a testament to the quality and dedication of the staff."

While each Academy is sponsored in part by that state's Nation Guard, the programs are not recruiting tools and--despite the military-style discipline used--there is no military obligations required upon graduation.

Nationally, 121,000 have graduated from Youth Challenge Academies, of which 2,222 attended Montana's. Following an 11 day acclimation phase, the cadets begin the five month residential phase that forms the heart of the course. Upon graduation, the Academy keeps in contact with students for a full year as part of the post residential phase, continuing to provide mentorship and support. The entire program is tuition free to students and their families.

Students are screened to determine if the program will be of value to them and if they have what it takes to succeed. Academy staff emphasize that the course is not a punishment, and that not all students who apply to the program are accepted. The goal is to give students the life skills to change their lives and strengthen the Montana community.

Cadets in the residential phase go through a rigorous program that includes regular physical fitness. An intensive academic focus result in nearly 80% of Montana graduates passing a HiSET test--formerly known as the GED--compared to 59% nationally. To graduate, students must verify placement in a job or educational institution that will begin after their time at the Academy.

When cadets graduate from the residential phase, 94% of them have a secured, verified placement that has been set up by the Counseling and Post Residential Departments," said Jan Rouse, the Director of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy. "After four years, 83% of graduated cadets are still actively in the work force, military or education setting. Some have also finished higher education."

Another key aspect of the Academy is the mentorship program. Each cadet is matched with an individual adult mentor who is not part of the staff nor an immediate family member. Each mentor, following a background check, attends a full day of training on what is expected of them. They are expected to stay in weekly contact with their mentee during the end of the resident period and the full post resident period. Mentors are screened to ensure they live close to their student and have knowledge of lacal resources that they can point he cadet towards if needed.

"The role of the mentor is to be a life coach to the cadet as well as to assist the cadet to maintain placement and find alternate placements, if necessary," said Rouse. "The mentor program is crucial to the success of the cadet and is often referred to as the catalyst for the long term success rate of the program."

Youth Challenge Academies have found that cadets with a strong, trained mentor are 80% more likely to be successful than those without a mentor.

Montana's Class 31, organized in to two male platoons and one female platoon, kept their spirits up as the hours and miles passed on the Birch Creek hike. Academy staff marched alongside the cadets, ensuring everyone kept hydrated and motivated.

The hike is a significant step towards graduation, marking the beginning of a week filled with outdoor activities in and around the Birch Creek Center, including land navigation, water ecology classes, a ropes course and even a magic show. The week concludes with the Commandant's Run, a 3.5 mile course that graduates state is a highlight of the entire program.

"Cadets always enjoy their week of outdoor education at Birch Creek," said Rouse. "It's a time for them to gel with their units and as a class."

Birch Creek also marks a scheduled visit from Montana National Guard leadership to see how the students have progressed since their acclimation phase.

"I've been heavily involved in this program since I've taken on the responsibility of Adjutant General," said Quinn. "I try to visit each class four times during their cycle to see how things are progressing, and I'm impressed every time."

Throughout the course, students are challenged to exceed their preconceived limitations through individual and unit competitions. Each week's top performing platoon is recognized as the honor platoon, a distinction that brings great pride.

Recent graduates speak with satisfaction about the challenges of the program and the value it has brought to their lives.

"MYCA helped me to change my life and get back on track," said Brenden Swartz, the Company Commander in Class 29. "It set a good foundation for a successful rest of my life."

"I will always be grateful to MYCA for the opportunities that were given to me," said Johnathan Pfeiffer, a Platoon Sergeant in Class 29. "It is because of MYCA that I have become the strong and mature young man that I am."

Swartz, Pfeiffer and the hundreds of other successful graduates of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy represent teenagers who recognized the road their lives were heading down and took a risk to change that path. With help from their families, Academy staff and their assigned mentors, these cadets were pushed outside their comfort zones, sweated to meet new expectations, complete demanding challenges and worked as a team to accomplish goals and graduate.

"When I shake a cadet's hand at graduation, I know just how much work was involved in getting to that point," said Quinn.

Class 31 is scheduled to graduate on Dec. 20. For more information on the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, visit their website at or call 1-877-367-6927.