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Kuchler, Kenneth
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Dillon Academy helps shape up Kalispell teen.

By HILARY MATHESON/Daily Inter LakeDaily Inter Lake |

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 hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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