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

By Marga Lincoln - Independent Record, Thom Bridge, 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 "She was very withdrawn and very uncomfortable before," said Autumn, who admires Alyssa's new level of confidence and maturity.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.

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